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Auschwitz Gate Sign: Polish Police Find Stolen "Arbeit Macht Frei" Sign

MONIKA SCISLOWSKA   12/20/09 08:34 PM ET   AP

Aptopix Poland Auschwitz

WARSAW, Poland — Polish police found the infamous "Arbeit Macht Frei" sign that was stolen from the gate of the former Nazi death camp of Auschwitz after an intensive three-day hunt and arrested five suspects, police said early Monday. The sign was found cut into three pieces.

Police spokeswoman Katarzyna Padlo told The Associated Press that the sign was found Sunday night in northern Poland, the other end of the country from the southern Polish town where the Auschwitz memorial museum is located and where it disappeared before dawn Friday.

Padlo said police detained five men between the ages of 25 and 39 and took them for questioning to Krakow, which is the regional command of the area that includes the Auschwitz museum.

Another police spokesman, Dariusz Nowak, said the 16-foot (5-meter) sign, made of hollow steel, was found cut into three pieces, each containing one of the words. The cruelly ironic phrase means "Work Sets You Free" and ran completely counter to the purpose of Auschwitz, which began as a concentration camp for political prisoners during the Nazi occupation of Poland and evolved into an extermination camp where Jews were gassed to death in factory-like fashion.

The police refused to divulge any details of the circumstances in which the sign was found or to speculate on the motive of the perpetrators. They were expected to disclose more at a news conference in Krakow planned for 0800 GMT (3 a.m. EST) Monday.

The sign that topped the main gate at the Auschwitz memorial site was stolen early Friday, setting off an international outcry at the disappearance of one of the most chilling and best known symbols of the Holocaust. State authorities made finding it a priority and appealed to all Poles for assistance.

Museum authorities welcomed the news with huge relief despite the damage done to the sign. Spokesman Pawel Sawicki said conservation experts will have to determine how best to repair it and that the museum authorities hope to restore it to its place as soon as possible.

Sawicki said the museum staff did not yet know who carried out the theft or why and were themselves waiting for more information from police.

More than 1 million people, mostly Jews, but also Gypsies, Poles and others, died in the gas chambers or from starvation and disease while performing forced labor at Auschwitz, which Nazi Germany built in occupied Poland during World War II. The camp was liberated by the Soviet army on Jan. 27, 1945.

Earlier on Sunday, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu called on Poland to act to find "these twisted criminals that desecrated the place where over a million Jews were murdered."

"The sign is of the deepest historical importance to the Jewish people and the whole world, and is a tombstone for more than a million Jews," Netanyahu said.

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Associated Press Writer Vanessa Gera contributed to this report.

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Filed by Lila Shapiro  |