Poland is treating the recovery of the sign from the site, near Cracow, as a matter of national honour. President Kaczynski said: “I appeal to all countrymen to help the police to track down the sign. A worldwide symbol of the cynicism of Hitler’s executioners and the martyrdom of their victims has been stolen. This act deserves the strongest possible condemnation.”
In all there are 155 buildings, including crematoriums, and some 300 ruins on the sprawling site. A visit to Auschwitz forms part of the curriculum of many German and Polish schools. The theft could be linked to the decision this week by Germany to pay half the cost of patching up the buildings.
There has always been a danger — as Holocaust survivors and their Nazi murderers die out — that the authenticity of the sites will be questioned. Auschwitz is made up primarily of red-brick buildings that formed part of Habsburgian barracks, used initially to imprison Polish political prisoners, and the wooden prisoner huts of Auschwitz-Birkenau. Birkenau was the location of the gas chambers, but both parts of the old Nazi camp are showing signs of wear and tear as hundreds of thousands of tourists visit the site every year.
The critical question has been how far to restore the buildings and the crumbling personal possessions — including 80,000 shoes and 3,800 suitcases taken from victims — and risk opening up the museum to charges of falsification.