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Relief after Polish police find stolen Auschwitz sign

Auschwitz-Birkenau — Widespread relief on Monday greeted the recovery of the Nazi German "Arbeit macht frei" sign stolen from the former Auschwitz death camp in Poland, although the theft’s motive remained unclear.

"The museum staff were affected by this in a very personal way, so the sense of relief is tangible," Auschwitz-Birkenau Museum spokesman Jaroslaw Mensfelt told AFP.

Police arrested five men shortly before midnight Sunday and recovered the five-metre (16-foot) metal sign — which means "Work Will Set You Free" in German — cut into three pieces.

Prosecutor’s spokesman Janusz Hnatko told AFP that four people had been charged with the organised theft and damage of an object from UNESCO’s World Heritage list and faced up to 10 years in prison if convicted.

The fifth was still being questioned, Hnatko said, adding that "the charges will be different because he ordered the theft."

"His questioning will enable us to learn more about the motive," he explained, adding that the gang had been operating since October.

The theft of the sign from the camp gateway sent shockwaves around the world when it was discovered Friday morning at the site, on the edge of the southern Polish city of Oswiecim.

It came weeks before the 65th anniversary of the camp’s liberation by Soviet troops on January 27, 1945, and sparked a police dragnet and beefed-up border controls.

"When we heard the news Friday that this place of memory had been profaned, we just couldn’t believe it. It was a mixture of fury and sadness," said Mensfelt’s museum colleague Pawel Sawicki.

"It was an attack on one of the most important symbols of the 20th century. It went against everything we try to teach and pass on to people who visit this place," he said.

Hnatko said the sign was being examined in a forensics lab in the nearby city of Krakow. "Once that’s finished, it could be returned to the museum, maybe even on Tuesday," he said.

The five suspects are aged 20 to 39 and have criminal records for theft or violence, police said.

Krakow police commander Andrzej Rokita told reporters that none appeared to "belong to a neo-Nazi group nor hold such ideas".

The sign has come to symbolise the horror of the camp in Nazi-occupied Poland.

This was where 1.1 million mainly Jewish prisoners from across Europe died during World War II: some from overwork and starvation, but mostly in the gas chambers. Among the other victims were non-Jewish Poles, Roma and captured Soviet soldiers.

Rokita said that suspects were arrested in a vehicle near Gdynia on Poland’s Baltic coast and three in a home near Wloclawek in central Poland.

"The sign had been cut into three pieces at the site of the theft, to make it easier to transport. It had been hidden in a wood near the home of one of the thieves," he added.

On Friday museum staff had put a metal copy over the gate.

Snow and biting wind had Monday all but covered the tracks of the thieves, who had apparently got the sign out through a hole in the camp wall. The only remaining indication was a breach in the barbed wire.

Auschwitz was one of a network of camps set up by Nazi Germany for the extermination of six million Jews and others they considered undesirable. Most were in occupied Poland, home to Europe’s largest pre-war Jewish population.

It was initially created for Polish resistance fighters in a barracks in Oswiecim — Auschwitz in German — a year after the Nazis invaded in 1939. They expanded it into a vast camp at nearby Brzezinka, or Birkenau in German.

It became a Polish state-run museum and memorial in 1947, two years after the war ended.

Museum director Piotr Cywinski said the 200-hectare (500-acre) site has had to make do with a rudimentary surveillance system, since its limited budget has had to be ploughed into urgent preservation work.

The 200 hectare site, which drew a million visitors last year, relies on Polish funds for 95 percent of its costs — 6.8 million euros in 2008. The museum launched a 120-million-euro global appeal this year for long-term preservation work and Germany last week pledged to provide half that.