A Polish court on Thursday convicted three men of the theft of the notorious “Arbeit Macht Frei” (Work Sets You Free) sign from the Auschwitz memorial site in December.
The men, two of whom are brothers, were given prison sentences ranging from 18 months to two and a half years.
Krakow’s district court said the men confessed to the theft and agreed to settlements, which meant the case did not have to go to trial. The court identified them only as Radoslaw M., Lukasz M. and Pawel S. in keeping with Polish privacy laws.
The theft occurred in the night between December 17 and December 18, a brazen heist that shocked Holocaust survivors and many others committed to preserving the Auschwitz—Birkenau site.
The former death camp gets more than 1 million visitors a year and is one of Europe’s most important sites honouring the memory of the Nazis’ victims and of warning the world about the dangers of hatred and totalitarianism.
The thieves left traces in the snow and then cut the sign into three pieces to make it easier to transport. They also left behind the last letter “i” in the snow. Authorities later said that the Polish men who carried out the theft were petty thieves working on commission for someone else.
A Swedish man with a neo—Nazi background, Anders Hogstrom, is also a suspect. He is under arrest in Sweden and due to be extradited to Poland. Two other Polish suspects remain imprisoned and under investigation.
Polish authorities have been tightlipped about the case against Hogstrom and other aspects of the case. They have not specified what role they believe Hogstrom played, nor said if he was the ultimate buyer.
Some media reports have suggested that a British collector of Nazi memorabilia commissioned the theft, but police prosecutors have not confirmed that.
Officials with the Auschwitz—Birkenau memorial museum have their doubts about the collector hypothesis given that the theft was so badly botched, said spokesman Pawel Sawicki.
Police tracked down the cut up sign in a snow—covered forest on the other side of Poland less than three days after it was stolen.
The cynical slogan on the Auschwitz sign has come to be a potent symbol of Nazi Germany’s atrocities during World War II and the Holocaust.
Between 1940 and 45 more than 1 million people, mostly Jews, were killed in the gas chambers of Auschwitz—Birkenau or died of starvation or disease while forced to perform hard physical labour at the camp.