A Polish judge jailed a Swedish man for two years and eight months for plotting the theft of the “Arbeit macht frei” Auschwitz entrance sign. Anders Hoegstroem, a former neo-Nazi leader, admitted theft under a plea. The infamous sign was stolen in December 2009 and recovered in three pieces three days later.
The judge in Krakow also jailed two Poles for up to two-and-a-half years.
One of the pair, named as Andrzej S, apologised in court for the offence, Polish media report.
The 5m (16ft) wrought-iron slogan which translates as “Work sets you free” is a potent symbol of many of the Nazi-era atrocities. During the Nazi Holocaust, 1.1 million people – most of them Jews – were murdered at Auschwitz.
The sign has since been repaired although it now hangs in the Auschwitz museum and has been replaced by a replica at the entrance to the former death camp.
The chairman of Yad Vashem, Israel’s Holocaust museum, called the theft shocking.
“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,” Avner Shalev.
“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,” he said.
More than 1 million people died in gas chambers or were starved to death in the Auschwitz-Birkenau concentration camp complex; about 90 percent of the victims were Jews.
Rabbi Marvin Hier, founder and dean of the Los Angeles-based Simon Wiesenthal Center, called the sign “the defining symbol of the Holocaust.
“Everyone knew that this was not a place where work makes you free, but it was the place where millions of men, women, and children were brought for one purpose only — to be murdered,” Hier said. “The audacity and boldness of this crime deserve the full attention of the Polish government.” The centre calls itself one of the largest international Jewish human rights organizations.