(photo credit: kkl)
Polish police said the five men arrested for the theft of the infamous "Arbeit Macht Frei" sign that was bolted atop the gate at the Auschwitz Nazi death camp have criminal pasts.
Investigators announced some details of the recovery of the sign at a news conference Monday, but said it was too soon to say what the motive behind the theft may have been. The sign was found cut into three pieces near the home of one of the five men.
The 16-foot (5-meter) sign was stolen before dawn on Friday from the Auschwitz memorial museum site in the southern Polish town of Oswiecim.
Two of the suspects were tracked down in the northern city of Gdynia, the other three near Wloclawek.
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 theft of the sign set 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 January 27, 1945.
Earlier on Sunday, Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu had 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.