updated 12/18/2009 5:22:48 AM ET 2009-12-18T10:22:48

The infamous iron sign bearing the Nazis' cynical slogan "Arbeit Macht Frei" that spanned the main entrance to the former Auschwitz death camp was stolen before dawn Friday, Polish police said.

The wide iron sign — across a gate at the former Nazi death camp in southern Poland where more than 1 million people died during World War II — was removed by being unscrewed on one side and torn off on the other, police spokeswoman Katarzyna Padlo said.

She said the sign — bearing the German words for "Work Sets You Free" — disappeared from the Auschwitz memorial between 3:30 a.m. and 5 a.m.

Police have launched an intensive hunt, with criminal investigators and search dogs sent to the grounds of the vast former death camp, whose barracks, watchtowers and ruins of gas chambers still stand as testament to the atrocities inflicted by Nazi Germany on Jews, Gypsies, and others.

Museum spokesman Pawel Sawicki called the theft a "desecration" and said it was shocking that the tragic history of the site did not stop the thieves.

"We believe that the perpetrators will be found soon and the inscription will be returned to its place," Sawicki told The Associated Press.

Padlo said there are currently no suspects but police are pursuing several theories. A 5,000-zloty ($1,700) reward has been offered to anyone who can help track down the perpetrators.

An exact replica of the sign — made by the museum after World War II — was immediately hung in place of the missing original to fill in the empty space, but all visitors were being informed about the theft, Sawicki said. The museum had the replica made to hang when restoration work has been required on the original, Sawicki said.

The original sign was made in the summer of 1940 by non-Jewish Polish inmates of Auschwitz in an iron workshop at the camp, Sawicki said.

‘Physical reminder’
Poland's Chief Rabbi Michael Schudrich said he had trouble imagining who would steal the sign and condemned the theft.

"If they are pranksters, they'd have to be sick pranksters, or someone with a political agenda. But whoever has done it has desecrated world memory," he told the AP.

"Auschwitz has to stand intact because without it, we are without the world's greatest reminder — physical reminder — of what we are capable of doing to each other," Schudrich said.

The slogan "Arbeit Macht Frei" was also used at the entrances to other Nazi camps, including Dachau and Sachsenhausen. The long curving sign at Auschwitz, is, however, perhaps the best known.

1 million deaths
Between 1940 and 1945, more than 1 million people, mostly Jews, were killed or died of starvation and disease while carrying out forced labor at the camp, which the Nazis built in occupied Poland.

Video: Stolen Today the site is one of the main draws in the region for visitors from abroad and Polish students, with more than 1 million visitors per year.

However, the barracks and other structures, which were not built to last many decades, are in a state of massive disrepair 65 years after the camp was liberated by the Soviet army, and Polish authorities have been struggling to find funds to carry out conservation work. This week, Germany pledged (EURO) 60 million ($87 million) to a new endowment that will fund long-term preservation work — half the estimated amount that officials with the Auschwitz memorial museum say is needed.

Copyright 2009 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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