OSWIECIM, Poland - Thieves stole the notorious sign bearing the cynical Nazi slogan

Arbeit Macht Frei

- German for

Work Sets You Free

- from the entrance to the former Auschwitz death camp, cutting through rows of barbed wire and metal bars early yesterday before escaping through the snow.

The brazen seizure of one of the Holocaust's most chilling symbols brought worldwide condemnation.

"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 from Jerusalem.

He said in a statement, "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 16-foot, 90-pound steel sign spanned the main entrance to the Auschwitz camp, where more than one million people, mostly Jews, were killed during World War II.

Working under the cover of darkness and timing their theft between regular security patrols, the culprits unscrewed the sign on one side and tore it off on the other, then carried it 300 yards to an opening in a concrete wall.

The opening, which had been left intentionally to preserve a poplar tree dating back to the war, was blocked by four metal bars, which the thieves cut. Footprints in the snow led to the nearby road, where police believe the sign was loaded onto a vehicle.

Polish Prime Minister Donald Tusk ordered authorities to do all in their power to recover the sign swiftly and catch the perpetrators. "I treat this as a priority," Tusk said.

Police deployed 50 officers, including 20 detectives, and a search dog to the grounds, where barracks, watchtowers, and rows of barbed wire stand as a testament to the atrocities of Nazi Germany.

The sign disappeared between 3:30 and 5 a.m., a police spokeswoman said. Authorities were reviewing footage from a surveillance camera overlooking the entrance gate and the road beyond, but they declined to say whether the crime had been recorded.

But Auschwitz memorial director Piotr Cywinski said that the camera broadcasts live images on the Internet and that the footage is not recorded. He announced a $34,000 reward for information leading to the sign's recovery and the apprehension of the culprits.

German Foreign Minister Guido Westerwelle called the theft a "disgraceful act."

Poland's chief rabbi, Michael Schudrich, said he had trouble imagining who was behind the theft. "If they are pranksters, they'd have to be sick pranksters, or someone with a political agenda," he said.

He said the theft could have been committed by neo-Nazi extremists, or even people scheming to sell the sign on the black market.

British historian Andrew Roberts, author of books about World War II, said the sign would generate huge interest on the burgeoning market for Nazi memorabilia. "This is the biggest thing to happen in that sinister black market in a long time," Roberts said.

An exact reproduction of the sign, produced when the original underwent restoration work years ago, was quickly hung in its place.

After occupying Poland in 1939, the Nazis established the Auschwitz I camp in the city of Oswiecim, which initially housed German political prisoners and non-Jewish Polish prisoners.

In 1940, Nazi guards ordered the Polish inmates to make the sign with its cruelly ironic slogan, said museum spokesman Pawel Sawicki.

Two years later, hundreds of thousands of Jews began arriving by cattle trains to nearby Birkenau, also called Auschwitz II, where most were killed in gas chambers.

The slogan Arbeit Macht Frei appeared at the entrances of other Nazi camps, but the long curving sign at Auschwitz is the best known.

Yesterday's theft was the first major vandalism at the site, which previously has suffered graffiti, including spray-painted swastikas. Other Holocaust memorials have suffered neo-Nazi vandalism.