WARSAW (AP).- The infamous iron sign bearing the Nazis' cynical slogan "Arbeit Macht Frei" that spanned the main entrance to the former Auschwitz death camp was stolen before dawn Friday, Polish police said.
The heavy 5-meter-long (16-foot-long), 40-kilogram (90-pound) iron sign at the former Nazi death camp in southern Poland where more than 1 million people died during World War II was unscrewed on one side and torn off on the other, police spokeswoman Katarzyna Padlo said.
The theft of the sign bearing the German words for "Work Sets You Free" brought immediate condemnation from Jewish leaders in Poland and internationally.
"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 sign disappeared from the Auschwitz memorial between 3:30 a.m. and 5 a.m., Padlo said. The thieves appear to have known the area well, she added.
Police have launched an intensive hunt, with some two dozen criminal investigators and a search dog sent to the grounds of the vast former death camp, whose barracks, watchtowers and ruins of gas chambers still stand as testament to the atrocities inflicted by Nazi Germany on Jews, Gypsies, and others.
The thieves likely used a ladder to remove the sign from the 5-meter (16-foot) high posts on which it sat, Auschwitz museum spokesman, Jaroslaw Mensfelt, said.
It then appears to have been carried some 300 meters (300 yards) to an opening in a concrete wall around the site that had been secured with barbed wire, he said.
Neither Padlo nor Mensfelt would comment on whether there was surveillance footage of the theft, citing the ongoing investigation.
Padlo said the dog led police to a site outside the memorial wall where the sign appeared to have been set down, leaving an imprint in the fresh snow, and to another site by the road, where it appears to have been loaded on to a vehicle.
An exact replica of the sign made by the museum after World War II was immediately hung in place of the missing original to fill in the empty space, but all visitors were being informed about the theft, another museum spokesman, Pawel Sawicki, said. The museum had the replica made to hang when restoration work has been required on the original, Sawicki said.
Sawicki called the theft a "desecration" and said it was shocking that the tragic history of the site did not stop the thieves.
"We believe that the perpetrators will be found soon and the inscription will be returned to its place," Sawicki told The Associated Press.
Padlo said there are currently no suspects but police are pursuing several theories. A 5,000-zloty ($1,700) reward has been offered to anyone who can help track down the thieves.
The original sign was made in the summer of 1940 by non-Jewish Polish inmates of Auschwitz in an iron workshop at the camp, Sawicki said.
Poland's Chief Rabbi Michael Schudrich said he had trouble imagining who would steal the sign and condemned 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," he told the AP.
"Auschwitz has to stand intact because without it, we are without the world's greatest reminder physical reminder of what we are capable of doing to each other," Schudrich said.
The slogan "Arbeit Macht Frei" was also used at the entrances to other Nazi camps, including Dachau and Sachsenhausen. The long curving sign at Auschwitz, is, however, perhaps the best known.
Between 1940 and 1945, more than 1 million people, mostly Jews, were killed or died of starvation and disease while carrying out forced labor at the camp, which the Nazis built in occupied Poland.
Today the site is one of the main draws in the region for visitors from abroad and Polish students, with more than 1 million visitors per year.
However, the barracks and other structures, which were not built to last many decades, are in a state of massive disrepair 65 years after the camp was liberated by the Soviet army, and Polish authorities have been struggling to find funds to carry out conservation work. This week, Germany pledged euro60 million ($87 million) to a new endowment that will fund long-term preservation work half the estimated amount that officials with the Auschwitz memorial museum say is needed.
It was the first major act of vandalism at the site, though Mensfelt said there have been incidents of graffiti, including swastikas scrawled on an office building.
Many of the former Nazi camps in Germany and Poland are now memorial centers like Auschwitz, and have been targets of neo-Nazi vandalism in the past.
The former Sachsenhausen concentration camp on the outskirts of Berlin, for example, was attacked in 1992. Two of the original barrack buildings that housed prisoners were set ablaze in an incident that drew international attention and outraged German and Jewish leaders, and has not yet been solved.
Associated Press Writers Vanessa Gera and David Rising in Berlin contributed to this report.
Copyright 2009 The Associated Press.