This past Friday the Auschwitz Museum in Oswiecim, Poland reported the theft of the infamous ‘Arbeit Macht Frei’ sign that hangs at the entrance to the memorial site.
The theft, occurring only a day after the German government earmarked $90 million towards the upkeep of the Auschwitz-Birkenau site, was widely condemned.
Made by prisoners of the camp during the Holocaust, the wrought iron sign and its cynical statement, “through labor freedom is gained,” have come to symbolize the Holocaust and the massacre of European Jewry. More more than 1.1 million people were murdered there during the Holocaust, 90% of them Jewish.
Local police believe the 88-lb sign was stolen between 3:30 and 5 a.m. on Friday morning. A replica was put in place almost immediately, though visitors were informed of the theft. Some 700,000 visitors tour the site annually.
Police spokeswoman Katarzyna Padlo early Monday that the sign was found in northern Poland.
She said police also detained five men aged between 25 and 39 who are being transported to Krakow for questioning.
Still, many of Poland’s 5,000 Jews remain nervous.
“Members of the community are deeply disturbed,” says Rabbi Eliezer Gurary, who along with his wife Esther, directs Krakow’s Chabad center situated a short distance from Auschwitz.
“It is especially upsetting to the Holocaust survivors who live here in Krakow.”
While a flurry of anti-Semitic remarks have made their way to many Polish websites, Gurary says that he rarely experiences overt antisemitism, and that the Polish police have been helpful in the current incident.
Before the war Krakow was home to over 60,000 Jewish residents. Today, only 500 people are officially recognized as members of the Jewish community.
But, observes Rabbi Gurary, Polish youth have recently expressed interest in the city’s Jewish history, with Yiddish festivals and historical events becoming a yearly occurrence in Krakow’s historic Jewish quarter.
In addition to working with the local community, the Gurarys also reach out to the estimated 500,000 Jewish tourists who visit Krakow each year. Krakow’s Jewish community now includes kosher restaurant housed in the 350-year-old Isaac’s Synagogue along with a resource center, Jewish Library and a Kosher store.
According to Monika Krawczyk, the Director of the Foundation for the Preservation of Jewish Heritage in Poland, the theft was condemned by members of both the Jewish and Polish establishment.
“The public as whole views it as highly disrespectful,” she says, “not only to the 6 million Jewish victims of the Holocaust, but to the Polish civilians murdered as well,” referring to the 2.5 million Polish citizens killed in the war, 70,000 in Auschwitz alone.
While “most people are very shocked,” finding the Auschwitz theft particularly odious, Krawczyk hopes that it will make the Polish media treat other acts of vandalism to sites of Jewish heritage, more seriously.
The Foundation was created after the fall of Communism to preserve Jewish sites outside of Poland’s nine officially recognized Jewish communities, including the 1,200 Jewish cemeteries in Poland and the countless unmarked graves left over from the Holocaust. It reports 14-20 acts of vandalism with antisemetic intent yearly.
This year it reported the theft of two signs directed visitors to Jewish cemeteries in Biala Ravska and Rava Mazowiecka. A 200-year old oak tree next to a Jewish site in Izbica was also deliberately set on fire. In the Izbica case, the prosecutors’ office closed the investigation without resolution.
Chabad-Lubavitch has had an official presence in Poland since 2005. In addition to Chabad centers in the capital city of Warsaw and the historical Kazimierz district in Kraków, Chabad rabbinical students visit Jewish residents in other cities across Poland especially around major Jewish holidays.