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The Warsaw Voice » Society » January 13, 2010
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Swedish Suspects in Auschwitz Theft
January 13, 2010 By W.Ż.    
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Three weeks into an investigation, it is still unclear who ordered the theft of the historic "Arbeit macht frei" sign from the entrance to the former Auschwitz-Birkenau death camp in southern Poland. Prosecutors say they want to question suspects from Sweden.

The sign, which means "work makes you free" and which is a symbol of the largest Nazi death camp, was stolen in the early morning of Dec. 18, causing shock waves in Poland and abroad. The police established that the thieves must have known the area, as once they entered the camp, neither surveillance cameras nor security guards patrolling the camp prevented them from removing the metal sign, taking it out of the Auschwitz-Birkenau Memorial Museum and loading it onto a truck.

The theft caused an outrage around the world. Calls to condemn the theft came from President Lech Kaczyński, Prime Minister Donald Tusk, Foreign Minister Radosław Sikorski, Chief Rabbi of Poland Michael Schudrich, members of the Jewish community around the world and an association of former Auschwitz-Birkenau prisoners. All appealed to the Polish public to help the police.

It was a point of honor for law enforcement services in this country to recover the sign and track down the thieves. Huge efforts and funds went to the investigation and rewards totaling zl.100,000 were offered for those who would help catch the thieves and recover the historic sign. The investigators later said they had received several hundred calls with information on the case. A few of the calls helped narrow down the investigation and find the perpetrators, the investigators said. The sign, cut into three pieces, was recovered two days after the theft in the village of Czernikowo near Toruń around 400 kilometers from Auschwitz. Five suspects aged from 20 to 39 were detained.

The prosecutor's office in Cracow says it wants to question in Poland several Swedish nationals suspected of playing a part in the theft. "If that turns out to be impossible, then a European Arrest Warrant will be taken into consideration," Cracow's District Prosecutor Artur Wrona said Jan. 6.

The prosecutor's office has asked Swedish officials to confirm the personal data of two individuals suspected of taking part in the theft and enable the questioning of a third one as a witness.

The prosecutors have established that a Swede suspected of ordering the theft had gone on a reconnaissance trip in the spring of 2009. Apparently, he visited the Memorial Museum with two of the thieves. According to Wrona, the evidence is solid enough for the prosecutors to press charges of inciting robbery.

The prosecutor's office said it has no information to substantiate suspicion that one of the Swedes had ties to neo-Nazi organizations. According to media reports, the Swede, identified as 34-year-old Anders H., has for many years been a member and the leader of a small fascist group that was planning armed terrorist attacks on Swedish politicians in the coming months. The group supposedly sought to sell the stolen Auschwitz sign to obtain funds for weapons that it wanted to use in the attacks. Under this theory, the buyer was an unidentified "eccentric collector" in Britain with a neo-Nazi bent. The Polish prosecutor's office said it has no information about the British angle, which was reported by The Sunday Mirror at the beginning of January.

It has yet to be decided when and where the foreigners involved in the theft could be questioned, officials said. The Polish thieves, most of them petty criminals known to the police where they live, could face up to 10 years in prison. All have been detained for three months pending trial.

Whether or not the original sign will be put back in place is uncertain for now, officials say. It is possible that instead the sign will become part of an indoor exhibition.

Jarosław Mensfelt, a spokesman for the Auschwitz-Birkenau Memorial Museum, said Jan. 6 that the decision has not been made yet. "The sign first needs to return to the museum," Mensfelt said. "Then our conservators will have to examine and repair it. All security measures have to be taken and until that happens, and by the time the General Conservator and International Auschwitz Council issue their opinions, we are not making any decisions."

The Auschwitz death camp was established by the Nazis in 1940 and then superseded by KL Auschwitz II-Birkenau two years later. Germans killed at least 1.1 million people in the camp, mostly Jews. The victims also included Poles, Roma, Soviet prisoners of war and citizens of other countries. The main gate of Auschwitz I was the only gate in the camp to be made by Polish political prisoners after the Germans ordered them to. The prisoners had been brought in one of the first transports in late 1940 and early 1941. The "Arbeit macht frei" sign was made by the prisoners as well.
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