WARSAW, Poland - The three pieces of the infamous sign
Arbeit Macht Frei
("Work Sets You Free") will be welded together and restored to the main gate at the former Auschwitz death camp after an improved security system is put in place to guard against another theft.
Officials at the Auschwitz memorial museum said yesterday that the new system would be aimed at better protecting not just the recovered sign but also many other objects testifying to Nazi crimes - from two tons of human hair to a trove of written documents to the ruins of gas chambers now sinking into the earth.
"The location of the sign is its only authentic one, above the gate of the former Auschwitz I camp," museum director Piotr Cywinski said. "The sign will return there as soon as possible, after ensuring the protection of its site against damage and burglary."
Surveillance cameras and round-the-clock foot patrols already protect the vast 940-acre site - which includes Auschwitz I, where the sign was stolen, and Birkenau. But it is now clear that isn't enough, museum spokesman Jaroslaw Mensfelt said, and "the future security system will have to be better."
The extra cost involved only adds to the museum's troubles, because it is already dealing with dilapidated structures demanding enormous preservation efforts if they are to continue to stand as a testament for future generations.
Last week, Germany pledged $87 million to help preserve the site, calling it an expression of the nation's historical responsibility. But that was still only half of what Auschwitz officials say is needed.
Mensfelt said police would return the damaged sign to the museum as early as today. The sign was cut into three pieces, each containing one of the words, and the fact that the cuts were made between the intact words should make it easier to weld together, Mensfelt said. He stressed, though, that a specific plan for restoring the sign could only be made by conservation experts after they receive it from the police and analyze it for themselves.
For now, a replica of the sign hangs in its place.
The grim slogan Arbeit Macht Frei was so counter to the actual function of the camp that it has been etched into history, becoming one of the most recognizable slogans of the Nazi era.
The sign disappeared early Friday under cover of darkness in the bitter cold. Cywinski said then that the brazen theft could only be the work of professional thieves.
But the thieves were unable to outfox an intense, nationwide search, and on Sunday, police arrested five Polish men whom they described as common criminals most likely seeking profit from the sign, which was found in a snow-covered forest 250 miles from Auschwitz.
Police said they were investigating whether the Nazi memorabilia market may have played a part, but they did not yet disclose a motive, saying they were still questioning the men. The suspects do not have known neo-Nazi or other far-right links.
Deputy investigator Marek Wozniczka said the suspects would be charged with theft of an object of special cultural value and could face up to 10 years in prison.
Other charges could be added during the investigation, he said.
Pope Benedict XVI yesterday described a visit to Israel's Holocaust memorial as a disturbing encounter with hatred, days after he moved the controversial World War II-era pope closer to sainthood, angering Jewish groups.
Benedict signed a decree Saturday on the virtues of Pope Pius XII, who has been criticized for not doing enough to stop the Holocaust. This means Pius can be beatified once a miracle attributed to his intercession has been recognized.
The decision outraged Jewish groups still incensed over his rehabilitation earlier this year of a Holocaust-
Nevertheless, a Jan. 17 visit by Benedict to Rome's main synagogue is still on, said Ester Mieli, spokeswoman for Rome chief Rabbi Riccardo Di Segni. She dismissed a news report that the visit was in doubt following the Pius decision.
The German-born Benedict, who was forced to join the Hitler Youth and deserted from the Nazi Army, has repeatedly spoken out against the horrors of Nazism and anti-Semitism, but his efforts to improve relations with Jews have not always been smooth.
Yesterday, in a speech at the Vatican, he said his May visit to Yad Vashem "has meant an upsetting encounter with the cruelty of human fault, with the hatred of a blind ideology that, with no justification, sent millions of people to their deaths."
- Associated Press