Tue, Dec 22, 2009 - Page 6 News List

Police recover Auschwitz sign

FOR THE MONEY Police arrested two suspects on the Baltic Coast and three others in a house in the center of the country, while the sign had been buried in a copse

AFP , KRAKOW, POLAND

Workers hang the original “Arbeit macht frei” (Work will set you free) sign above the gate of the former Nazi death camp in Auschwitz, Poland, on May 23, 2006. The sign was stolen on Friday.

PHOTO: EPA

Polish police said yesterday they had recovered the Nazi German “Arbeit macht frei” sign stolen from the former Auschwitz death camp, but said five arrested suspects had no neo-Nazi links.

Andrzej Rokita, commander in the southern Polish city of Krakow, told reporters: “From the information we have, none of the five belong to a neo-Nazi group nor hold such ideas.”

The five suspects, aged 20 to 39 and with previous criminal records for theft or violence, faced up to 10 years in prison if convicted, police said.

Police arrested the men shortly before midnight on Sunday.

Rokita declined to elaborate on the motive for the theft, which sent shockwaves around the world when it was discovered on Friday morning at the site of the former death camp in the southern Polish city of Oscwiecim.

“They certainly did it for money, but we still need to establish if it was done on someone’s orders or for themselves,” he said.

On Friday, police had suggested that the theft of the 5m metal sign from the camp gate, which appeared highly professional, could have been carried out on behalf of a collector.

The sign, which means “work will set you free” in German, came to symbolize the horror of the camp, in Nazi-occupied Poland.

This was where 1.1 million mainly Jewish prisoners died during World War II — some from overwork and starvation, but mostly in the gas chambers.

Rokita said two suspects were arrested in a vehicle near Gdynia on Poland’s Baltic coast and the three others in a home near Wloclawek in the center of the country.

“The sign had been cut into three pieces at the site of the theft, to make it easier to transport. It had been hidden in a copse near the home of one of the thieves,” he said.

A police source said the suspects had confessed and had themselves indicated to officers where the sign was buried.

The Auschwitz-Birkenau Museum and other institutions had offered a reward of nearly 30,000 euros (US$45,000) for information leading to the recovery of the sign and the arrest of the thieves.

“It’s an enormous relief. We are extremely grateful to the police who have done fantastic work,” museum spokesman Pawel Sawicki said upon learning of its recovery. “This symbol, probably one of the most important of the past century, can be put back in its place.”

Rokita said that apart from being cut into three, the sign was otherwise undamaged.

He said it would be returned to Auschwitz “as soon as possible, and in any case before the 65th anniversary of its liberation” next month.

The camp was freed by Soviet troops on Jan. 27, 1945.

On Friday, museum staff had put up a metal copy over the entrance of the camp, visited by more than a million people last year.

Auschwitz was one of a network of camps set up by Nazi Germany for the extermination of 6 million Jews and others considered undesirable by Adolf Hitler’s regime.

Museum director Piotr Cywinski admitted the museum had had to make do with a rudimentary surveillance system, since much of its limited budget has been channeled into urgent renovation work.

“The surveillance was concentrated on the archives and exhibited objects, because no sane person could have imagined such an act,” he said.

The museum, which relies on Polish state funding, launched an international appeal this year for 120 million euros for vital preservation work. Germany last week pledged to provide half the sum.

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