Thieves on Friday stole the notorious metal sign hanging over the entrance of the former Nazi death camp of Auschwitz that reads "Arbeit macht frei" ("Work makes free"), police said.
Some 1.5 million people, mostly Jews, perished in the Nazi death camp located in southern Poland during World War Two. Prisoners arriving at the camp used to enter via a relatively small iron gate topped by the German-language motto.
More than 200 hectares (500 acres) of the former death camp became a museum after the war ended.
"Around 5 am today the museum administration informed us that the sign has been stolen. The whole area is under surveillance, there are many cameras there. We are now analyzing the film. I hope we will find the trail," a spokesman for the local police told TVP Info television.
The daily Gazeta Wyborcza said on its website that the museum authorities had already installed a replica sign over the gate that had been used briefly a few years ago when the original was being repaired.
"This (theft) is very saddening," Gazeta Wyborcza quoted Jaroslaw Mensfelt, the museum's spokesman, as saying.
"The thieves either didn't know where they were or -- what's even worse -- they did know but that didn't prevent them from stealing."
'Desecration of a holy site'
Hundreds of thousands of people visit the museum every year, but ticket sales are not enough to maintain the open-air site with its 155 buildings -- including the gas chambers -- 300 ruined facilities and hundreds of thousands of personal items.
Earlier this year Poland appealed for international donations to help preserve the site. Britain and Germany, among others, have offered
Auschwitz Museum spokesman Mensfelt told Ynet he had no doubt that whoever stole the sign had prior information as to when the site is unguarded and how to reach the sign.
Mensfelt said the act could only be described as the desecration of a holy site.
Polish Ambassador to Israel Agnieszka Magdziak-Miszewska said that the Polish police believe the unknown perpetrators who stole the infamous sign at the entrance to the Nazi death camp Auschwitz meticulously planned out their plot because they were not caught on security cameras.
"Everyone is doing everything they can in order to catch those who did this," she said, adding that the governor of the region declared a state of emergency. She also said that finding the metal sign is a national priority.
Yossi Levy, the Foreign Ministry's spokesman for the Hebrew press said, "It's hard to imagine what kind twisted (person) would want to steal this terrible symbol at the entrance to the death camp."
Noach Flug, president of the International Auschwitz Organization and chairman of the Center for Survivor Organizations called on the Polish government and police "to exert an especially concentrated effort into catching the perpetrators and bringing them to justice." He added, "This is an object that is a symbol of historic value that must be returned immediately."
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 said.
"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.
Ronen Medzini and news agencies contributed to the report