Auschwitz sign was 'stolen for trophy hunters'

Arrested men were professional criminals 'without links to extremists'

Police and Holocaust experts have said that Nazi memorabilia collectors were behind the theft of the infamous "Arbeit Macht Frei" sign that has been recovered three days after it was stolen from the entrance of the former Auschwitz death camp.

Five men, aged between 20 and 39, were arrested late on Sunday after the sign, with the cynical inscription that means "Work sets you free", was torn from its mountings at the camp early on Friday prompting international outrage, a major police investigation and the tightening of controls at Poland's borders

Police said the sign, which had been cut into three sections, was found in woods near one of the arrested men's homes outside the northern city of Torun. They ruled out that any of the suspects had neo-Nazi connections. "They are all ordinary thieves with past convictions, some for robbery, others for violence," said Andrzej Rokita, the deputy head of Krakow police, who is leading the investigation.

Mr Rokita said that police were following leads that suggested the theft could have been commissioned by Nazi memorabilia hunters. "This will be determined in the process of the investigation," he said. Four of the men were said to be unemployed. One owned a small construction company.

The police said they had been tipped off about the sign's whereabouts by neighbours of one of the suspects following the offer of a reward. One element pointing to a commissioned theft was that two of the men were picked up in the Baltic harbour town of Gdynia, which is Poland's main container port.

Speculation about the involvement of memorabilia hunters was backed by Dr Bertrand Perz, an expert at Vienna's Wiesenthal Institute for Holocaust Studies. "There is a huge market on the internet for this kind of stuff," he said. "Many of the collectors are in the United States. Even such things as faked World War Two Jewish ghetto money can fetch thousands."

Dr Perz said it was impossible to put a value on something like the "Arbeit Macht Frei" sign. "It is one of the most important symbols of the Nazi Holocaust. It is actually invaluable," he said.

Several Polish MPs have demanded that more reliable surveillance cameras be installed at Auschwitz – the world's best preserved and most chilling Nazi death camp that is now a museum attracting tens of thousands of visitors each year. Police revealed yesterday that the existing cameras at the camp had picked up images of the thieves, but that they were too poor to have been of any use to them as it had been too dark.

The sign's swift recovery was nevertheless welcomed by Auschwitz museum staff and Holocaust survivors' groups. "It is an enormous relief," said Pawel Sawicki, a museum spokesman. "We are extremely grateful to the police who have done fantastic work. This sign is probably one of the most important symbols of the past century and now it can be put back where it belongs," he added.

Avner Shalev, chairman of Israel's Yad Vashem Holocaust memorial also expressed relief. Echoing the outrage felt by many at the sign's theft, he said the incident had given "pain to Holocaust survivors and people of conscience everywhere".

The Nazi slogan "Arbeit Macht Frei" was first put up at the Dachau concentration map, where inmates were often worked to death, and became the cynical welcome to at least four other camps. Auschwitz started operating as an extermination camp in 1942 and more than a million people were murdered in its gas chambers and those of nearby Birkenau.

Suggested Topics
Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
Sport
sportSo, how closely were you paying attention during 2014?
Arts and Entertainment
Dennis speaks to his French teacher
tvThe Boy in the Dress, TV review
News
One father who couldn't get One Direction tickets for his daughters phoned in a fake bomb threat and served eight months in a federal prison
people... (and one very unlucky giraffe)
Arts and Entertainment
Joel Edgerton, John Turturro and Christian Bale in Exodus: Gods and Kings
film
PROMOTED VIDEO
ebooks
ebooksA year of political gossip, levity and intrigue from the sharpest pen in Westminster
Arts and Entertainment
The Plaza Theatre in Atlanta, Georgia was one of the 300 US cinemas screening
filmTim Walker settles down to watch the controversial gross-out satire
Arts and Entertainment
Amy Adams and Christoph Waltz in Tim Burton's Big Eyes
film reviewThis is Tim Burton’s most intimate and subtle film for a decade
Life and Style
Mark's crab tarts are just the right size
food + drinkMark Hix cooks up some snacks that pack a punch
Arts and Entertainment
Jack O'Connell stars as Louis Zamperini in Angelina Jolie's Unbroken
film review... even if Jack O'Connell is excellent
Arts and Entertainment
Madonna is not in Twitter's good books after describing her album leak as 'artistic rape and terrorism'
music14 more 'Rebel Heart' tracks leaked including Pharrell Williams collaboration
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Ashdown Group: Senior Marketing Executive- City of London, Old Street

£40000 - £43000 per annum + benefits: Ashdown Group: Senior Marketing Executiv...

Ashdown Group: Marketing Manager

£40000 - £43000 per annum + benefits: Ashdown Group: An international organisa...

Ashdown Group: Internal Recruiter -Rugby, Warwickshire

£25000 - £30000 per annum: Ashdown Group: Internal Recruiter -Rugby, Warwicksh...

Ashdown Group: Marketing Manager/Marketing Controller (Financial Services)

£70000 - £75000 per annum + benefits: Ashdown Group: Marketing Manager/Marketi...

Day In a Page

A Christmas without hope: Fears grow in Gaza that the conflict with Israel will soon reignite

Christmas without hope

Gaza fears grow that conflict with Israel will soon reignite
After 150 years, you can finally visit the grisliest museum in the country

The 'Black Museum'

After 150 years, you can finally visit Britain's grisliest museum
No ho-ho-hos with Nick Frost's badass Santa

No ho-ho-hos with Nick Frost's badass Santa

Doctor Who Christmas Special TV review
Chilly Christmas: Swimmers take festive dip for charity

Chilly Christmas

Swimmers dive into freezing British waters for charity
Veterans' hostel 'overwhelmed by kindness' for festive dinner

Homeless Veterans appeal

In 2010, Sgt Gary Jamieson stepped on an IED in Afghanistan and lost his legs and an arm. He reveals what, and who, helped him to make a remarkable recovery
Isis in Iraq: Yazidi girls killing themselves to escape rape and imprisonment by militants

'Jilan killed herself in the bathroom. She cut her wrists and hanged herself'

Yazidi girls killing themselves to escape rape and imprisonment
Ed Balls interview: 'If I think about the deficit when I'm playing the piano, it all goes wrong'

Ed Balls interview

'If I think about the deficit when I'm playing the piano, it all goes wrong'
He's behind you, dude!

US stars in UK panto

From David Hasselhoff to Jerry Hall
Grace Dent's Christmas Quiz: What are you – a festive curmudgeon or top of the tree?

Grace Dent's Christmas Quiz

What are you – a festive curmudgeon or top of the tree?
Nasa planning to build cloud cities in airships above Venus

Nasa planning to build cloud cities in airships above Venus

Planet’s surface is inhospitable to humans but 30 miles above it is almost perfect
Surrounded by high-rise flats is a little house filled with Lebanon’s history - clocks, rifles, frogmen’s uniforms and colonial helmets

Clocks, rifles, swords, frogmen’s uniforms

Surrounded by high-rise flats is a little house filled with Lebanon’s history
Return to Gaza: Four months on, the wounds left by Israel's bombardment have not yet healed

Four months after the bombardment, Gaza’s wounds are yet to heal

Kim Sengupta is reunited with a man whose plight mirrors the suffering of the Palestinian people
Gastric surgery: Is it really the answer to the UK's obesity epidemic?

Is gastric surgery really the answer to the UK's obesity epidemic?

Critics argue that it’s crazy to operate on healthy people just to stop them eating
Homeless Veterans appeal: Christmas charity auction Part 2 - now LIVE

Homeless Veterans appeal: Christmas charity auction

Bid on original art, or trips of a lifetime to Africa or the 'Corrie' set, and help Homeless Veterans
Pantomime rings the changes to welcome autistic theatre-goers

Autism-friendly theatre

Pantomime leads the pack in quest to welcome all