The infamous “Arbeit Macht Frei” sign on the gate at the Dachau concentration camp has been stolen, Die Welt reports.
The theft has been deemed an “offensive attack on the memory of the Holocaust” by Israel’s Yad Vashem Holocaust memorial.
The gate was the entry point for prisoners at the camp, the first established by the Nazis in 1933 and initially designed to house political prisoners of the Reich.
It translates as “Work makes you free”, a message which trivialises the suffering of the tens of thousands of prisoners who lived in the camp where forced labour was used as torture.
Police said security officials noticed the sign had been stolen on Sunday night but the memorial site does not have CCTV, a decision taken in order that Dachau does not resemble a high security prison as it was before and during the Second World War.
The inquiry is looking “in all directions”, say investigators, and police say they have no information on who could have stolen the sign which Gabriele Hammermann, Director of the Dachau Memorial Site, said was “the central symbol for the prisoners’ ordeal”. A search of the area’s immediate vicinity revealed nothing, and police are appealing to the public for help identifying any suspicious activity the night of the theft.
Initial suspicions have fallen on neo-Nazis and Holocaust deniers who have targeted concentration camps before, taking soil which they used in attempts to demonstrate that the systematic murder of Jews was invented or exaggerated. They have taken measurements to try to argue that the number of victims gassed and cremated was far smaller than claimed.
This is not the first time that such a sign has been stolen: back in 2009 the five metre long sign with the same mocking message was stolen from Auschwitz in Poland where it is estimated some 1.1 million people died, one million of them Jews.
The theft prompted an international outcry and calls for the sign to be returned by senior Polish politicians, Jewish leaders and historians.
Anders Hoegstroem, a 32 year old Swedish Neo-Nazi leader, was jailed for 32 months after negotiating a plea bargain with Polish prosecutors. The sign was sawn into three pieces and hidden in a forest but discovered three days later. He claimed to Swedish media that he was just acting as an intermediary to pick up the sign and sell it to a buyer. Five Polish men who actually committed the theft were also found guilty and imprisoned.
Swedish tabloid Aftonbladet reported the sign was stolen on behalf of the right wing extremist group who were planning on using the proceeds to finance a series of terrorist attacks to influence voters in the then upcoming Swedish elections.
The sign at Auschwitz now resides in the Auschwitz-Birkenau State Museum with a replica being put in its place.