Berlin — The “Arbeit Macht Frei” sign was stolen from the memorial at the Auschwitz death camp.
Polish police reported Friday that the 16-foot long metal sign with the words meaning “Work will set you free” (work will free you) was gone. A hunt for the perpetrators is under way, and a reward of $1,700 has been offered for information leading to the sign’s return.
A spokesperson for the Auschwitz-Birkenau Museum, Jaroslaw Mensfelt, told AFP, the French news service, that the sign must have been removed just before sunrise. He called the theft “a profanation of the place where more than a million people were murdered. It’s shameful.”
The sign was the original one that prisoners were forced to make, and it hung on hooks from the gate, according to Mensfelt. He said it was the first major theft at the memorial, which has watchmen posted round the clock.
The theft occurred one day after German announced it would contribute $87 million to the new Auschwitz-Birkenau Foundation, which earlier this year launched a campaign to raise $172 million to preserve the remains of the death camp as a memorial and museum. There are about 450 buildings and remains of buildings at the site, including the ruins of gas chambers. There also are 80,000 pairs of shoes of victims, and 3,800 suitcases, according to a report in the Deutsche Welle.
According to AFP, former Polish President Lech Walesa decried the theft of the sign and said he hoped it was only “a sick joke by scrap-metal thieves who didn’t know what they were doing.” And Avner Shalev, director of Israel’s Yad Vashem Holocaust memorial, told reporters the theft “constitutes a true declaration of war.”