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Police: Foreigner behind Auschwitz sign theft

A foreigner outside of Poland commissioned the brazen theft of the infamous "Work Sets You Free" Auschwitz sign, officials say.
Poland Auschwitz Sign
Police officers present parts of the retrieved "Work Sets You Free" sign during a news conference in Krakow, Poland, on Tuesday. The infamous sign was stolen last week from the former Nazi death camp at Auschwitz.Alik Keplicz / AP
/ Source: The Associated Press

A foreigner outside Poland commissioned the brazen theft of the infamous Auschwitz sign "Arbeit Macht Frei" ("Work Sets You Free"), officials said Tuesday.

In a bid to learn more about the escapade, Polish investigators re-enacted the theft by the three men who confessed to taking the sign from the former Nazi death camp at Auschwitz.

Based on the evidence gathered since the theft Friday, the crime was commissioned by a "person living outside Poland" and police were seeking help from Interpol and others as they investigate, said Artur Wrona, the chief prosecutor in Krakow.

Polish media have reported, without citing any sources, that someone in Sweden could be under suspicion, but Wrona refused to confirm or deny the claims.

In Stockholm, a Swedish police official said they have not been contacted about any links.

"There has been no requests made by the Polish police to the Swedish police yet," Superintendent Bertil Olofsson of the Swedish National Criminal Police said. "And so we can't confirm this speculation."

Security hole
Despite the specter of an international link to the crime, Wrona said the investigation so far had exposed "glaring negligence" in the security system at the Auschwitz museum that let the burglars act "undisturbed."

He said the perpetrators drove to the then-closed museum in a sports car after dark Thursday but found they needed tools to get the sign down. They went to a shop and bought tools including a spanner, he said.

When they returned, it was just after midnight and there were no guards about as they unbolted one side and ripped the other off the opposite gate post, officials said.

Police said the sign was cut into three pieces with a saw so it could fit in the getaway car.

Only one camera overlooks the gate and it remained unclear if it recorded the theft.

Museum spokesman Jaroslaw Mensfelt said that for more than 60 years of its existence, the museum's security system had seemed to be sufficient, but was now undergoing scrutiny.

"Any upgrades that might be made must mean that no one will ever think of another theft," he said.

This two photo combination shows above: a Polish Police handout showing the entrance to the former Nazi death camp Auschwitz Birkenau, without the Nazi infamous iron sign inscription declaring \"Arbeit Macht Frei\", German translated to \"Work Sets You Free\", which was stolen from the entrance of the former Auschwitz death camp, Polish police said, in Oswiecim, southern Poland, Friday, Dec. 18, 2009. The photo below shows an exact replica of the sign, produced when the original received restoration work years ago, which was quickly hung in its place, Friday Dec. 18, 2009.AP

Working from tips, police found the sign Sunday — hidden under snow in the woods — and arrested five suspects in northern Poland. Prosecutors said three of the five men have confessed to Friday's pre-dawn theft of the sign, which is a symbol of Nazi Germany atrocities during World War II.

All five suspects face up to 10 years in prison if convicted of stealing and dismantling the sign, which is a symbol of World War II and the Holocaust and has historic value for Poland.

Prosecutor Piotr Kosmaty said the re-enactment of the crime gave investigators "valuable material" but refused to elaborate. The three suspects who had confessed were taken back to Auschwitz to show investigators how they unscrewed and tore the sign, which weighs 66 pounds and is 16 feet long, from the gateposts.

Kosmaty said the two other suspects had denied any involvement and denied being at Auschwitz.

Burglary tools found
In Krakow, which is 50 miles from the Auschwitz museum, police displayed the broken sign for journalists. Each of the three parts bore one of the words. Some of the steel that formed its outline was bent and the letter "i" was missing from the word "Frei" because it had been left behind during the theft. It was recovered at the scene.

Police forensics expert Lidia Puchacz said that cutting and sawing tools used in the theft were found at the home of one of the suspects.

She said the sign will be checked "millimeter by millimeter" for clues as to how it was cut up and by whom.

Krakow police spokesman Dariusz Nowak said the $40,000 reward for helping find the sign may be paid out to a number of people.

Prosecutors will decide when to return the sign to the museum. On Jan. 27 the museum is to hold ceremonies to mark its liberation by Soviet troops in 1945.

For now, an exact replica of the sign hangs in its place.

After occupying Poland in 1939, the Nazis established the Auschwitz I camp, which initially housed German political prisoners and Polish prisoners. The sign was made in 1940 and placed above the main gate there.

Two years later, hundreds of thousands of Jews began arriving by cattle trains to the wooden barracks of nearby Birkenau, also called Auschwitz II, where they were systematically killed in gas chambers.