Just months after three men were convicted of stealing the Arbeit Macht Frei (Work Sets You Free) sign from the Auschwitz-Birkenau memorial, two Canadians were detained June 26 for allegedly pilfering two spikes from the railway tracks that run through the compound.
The nails, which were not fastened to the ground, were found in the men’s backpacks after witnesses notified authorities, according to an article by the French news agency Agence France-Presse.
Since the theft was relatively small scale, it’s likely the men — both of them 30-year-old teachers — pocketed the nails out of ignorance rather than ill intent. Still, given Auschwitz’s enduring historical and cultural significance, these things aren’t taken lightly.
The rail runs close to the Birkenau gas chambers, set up in 1942 to expedite the Nazis’ “Final Solution.”
“For us, this is a case of desecration of a place of memorial. These items are priceless,” said Bartosz Bartyzel, a museum representative, in the article.
Indeed, historical artifacts are everywhere at the 940-acre Auschwitz-Birkenau memorial. None, perhaps, is as enduring as the grim, 16-foot Arbeit Macht Frei sign, which was taken last December (only to be found a few days later) from its place above the site’s main entrance. European tabloids have speculated that prominent Swedish or British neo-Nazis ordered the theft.
The recently detained Canadians, however, have claimed they were just fishing for souvenirs. The men were both released the same day as the arrest, but still could face charges and a penalty of up to 10 years in prison, according to the local police chief.