OSWIECIM, Poland — Thieves stole the notorious sign bearing the cynical Nazi slogan "Work Sets You Free" from the entrance to the former Auschwitz death camp on Friday, cutting through rows of barbed wire and metal bars before making their escape through the snow.
The brazen seizure of one of the Holocaust's most chilling symbols brought worldwide condemnation.
"The theft of such a symbolic object is an attack on the memory of the Holocaust, and an escalation from those elements that would like to return us to darker days," Yad Vashem Chairman Avner Shalev said in a statement from Jerusalem.
"I call on all enlightened forces in the world who fight against anti-Semitism, racism, xenophobia and the hatred of the other, to join together to combat these trends."
The 16-foot sign bearing the German words "Arbeit Macht Frei" – "Work Sets You Free" – spanned the main entrance to the Auschwitz death camp, where more than 1 million people, mostly Jews, were killed during World War II.
Working under the cover of darkness and timing their theft between regular security patrols, the culprits unscrewed the 90-pound steel banner on one side and tore it off on the other, then carried it 300 yards to an opening in a concrete wall.
The opening, which had been left intentionally to preserve a poplar tree dating back to the war, was blocked by four metal bars, which the thieves cut. Footprints in the snow led to the nearby road, where police believe the sign was loaded onto a vehicle.
Polish Prime Minister Donald Tusk, who spoke with Israeli President Shimon Peres about the theft, ordered authorities to do all in their power to recover the sign swiftly and catch the perpetrators. "I treat this as a priority," Tusk said.
Police deployed 50 officers, including 20 detectives, and a search dog to the Auschwitz grounds, where barracks, watchtowers and rows of barbed wire stand as testament to the atrocities of Nazi Germany.
The sign disappeared between 3:30 a.m. and 5 a.m., a police spokeswoman said. Authorities were reviewing footage from a surveillance camera that overlooks the entrance gate and the road beyond, but declined to say whether the crime was recorded or if the suspects could be seen in the darkness.
However, Auschwitz memorial director Piotr Cywinski told reporters the camera broadcasts live images on the Internet and the footage is not recorded. He announced a $34,000 reward for information leading to the sign's recovery and the apprehension of the culprits.
German Foreign Minister Guido Westerwelle called the theft a "disgraceful act."
Poland's chief rabbi, Michael Schudrich, said he had trouble imagining who was behind 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," Schudrich said.
He said the theft could have been committed by neo-Nazi extremists, or even people scheming to sell the sign on the black market.
British historian Andrew Roberts, author of "The Storm of War" and other books about World War II, said the sign would generate huge interest on the burgeoning market for Nazi memorabilia.
"This is the biggest thing to happen in that sinister black market in a long time," Roberts said. "I fear that this being the ultimate image of the Holocaust that it's been stolen to order by a collector of Nazi paraphernalia."
He said the market for Nazi goods started in the 1960s and is centered in Germany, where it is illegal, Britain and the United States.
"When one thinks about what the medals and weapons of the Third Reich are worth, you can imagine what this would be worth to a seriously warped person," he said.
An exact replica of the sign, produced when the original underwent restoration work years ago, was quickly hung in its place.
After occupying Poland in 1939, the Nazis established the Auschwitz I camp in the southern Polish city of Oswiecim, which initially housed German political prisoners and non-Jewish Polish prisoners.
In 1940, Nazi guards ordered the Polish inmates to make the sign with its cruelly ironic slogan, museum spokesman Pawel Sawicki said.
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 most were killed in gas chambers.
The slogan "Arbeit Macht Frei" appeared at the entrances of other Nazi camps, including Dachau and Sachsenhausen, but the long curving sign at Auschwitz is the best known.
Friday's theft was the first major act of vandalism at the site, which previously has suffered graffiti including spray-painted swastikas.
In Jerusalem, the International Auschwitz Committee said the theft "deeply unsettles the survivors."
"The sign has to be found," said Noach Flug, an Auschwitz survivor. "The slogan and the camp itself will tell what happened even when we won't be able to tell any more."
Other Holocaust memorials have suffered neo-Nazi vandalism. Sachsenhausen on the outskirts of Berlin was attacked in 1992, when two barracks were set on fire. That crime remains unsolved.
Lucas reported from Warsaw. Associated Press writers Monika Scislowska in Warsaw, Krzysztof Kopacz in Oswiecim, David Rising and Kirsten Grieshaber in Berlin, Aron Heller in Jerusalem and Gregory Katz in London contributed to this report.