The gruesomely jaunty metal sign over the entrance to Auschwitz that has become a symbol of the Nazi Holocaust was stolen in the early hours of today.
Hundreds of thousands of Holocaust victims passed under the sign, which reads “Arbeit macht frei”, as they entered the hell of Auschwitz. Sixteen feet wide and cast in iron letters, the cynical inscription translates as “Work sets you free”.
Today staff at Poland’s carefully preserved Auschwitz Memorial Museum – the world’s most emotionally shattering monument to the brutality of Nazi rule – were at one with Holocaust survivors and Jewish leaders across the globe in their shock at the news that the sign had been stolen from the site of the camp.
“We regard this theft as an act of desecration,” the museum spokesman Pawel Sawicki said. “Whoever stole the sign had absolutely no feelings for the terrible history of Auschwitz or the plight of the Holocaust’s victims.”
His remarks were echoed by an outraged response from Avner Shalev, the chairman of Jerusalem’s Yad Vashem memorial. He described the theft as “an attack on the memory of the Holocaust,” adding: “It is an escalation of those elements which would like to return us to darker days. I call on all enlightened forces in the world to combat these trends.”
More than a million people, most of them Jews, were murdered in Auschwitz.
Michael Schudrich, Poland’s Chief Rabbi, said the thieves had desecrated world memory. “Auschwitz has to stand intact,” he said. “Without it we are without the world’s greatest physical reminder of what we are capable of doing to each other.”
The German government also condemned the theft. Dieter Graumann, vice-president of Germany’s Central Council of Jews, said it was “tasteless and shocking – this is very upsetting for all Holocaust survivors and their relatives”.
The Israeli President, Shimon Peres, expressed “deep shock” at the theft.
Police in the nearby southern Polish city of Cracow, who are investigating the theft, said the sign disappeared from the gate of the former death camp between 3.30 and 5am local time. They seem to have avoided being caught on any surveillance cameras, and used a ladder to scale the metal arch which held the sign. They then unscrewed one end of the inscription and wrenched off the other end.
Katarzyna Padlo, a Cracow police spokeswoman, said that footprints in the snow showed that the thieves had carried the sign to a gap in the concrete wall surrounding the site, where it ap
peared to have been loaded on to a vehicle and driven away. “We have some two dozen officers and tracker dogs investigating, but so far we have no indication as to who the perpetrators might be,” she said.
A sign reading “Arbeit macht frei” was put up at the first German concentration camp at Dachau outside Munich shortly after the Nazis took power in 1933. The slogan was meant as a form of cynical encouragement to camp inmates, who were frequently worked to death. The slogan was then adopted by other Nazi concentration camps including Auschwitz in 1940 – two years before the camp was turned into a full-blown extermination camp.
At Auschwitz, hundreds of thousands of Jews, Romany gypsies, homosexuals and political and social outcasts were worked nearly to death, then murdered in the gas chambers which started operating at Auschwitz in 1941.
The gas chambers and crematoria were later extended to neighbouring Birkenau, where they were used for mass murder on an industrial scale.
Yesterday Auschwitz museum staff said they had replaced the stolen sign with a copy that was normally used as a replacement while the original underwent routine maintenance.
*Thieves stole the corpse of Tassos Papadopoulos, the late president of Cyprus, last week, one day before the anniversary of his death.
*In 2008 the memorial stone of Ian Curtis, former Joy Division front man, with the inscription ‘love will tear us apart’, was stolen from a Macclesfield cemetery.
*Shergar, the world famous racehorse which won the 1981 Derby by 10 lengths, was seized at gunpoint in 1983. The crime has never been solved and there is no clue to the horse’s whereabouts
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