Warsaw: Thieves on Friday stole the infamous Nazi German "Arbeit macht frei" sign from the entrance to the Auschwitz death camp in Poland, police said.
The sign, which means "Work Will Set You Free", has become a symbol of the horror of the camp where about 1.1 million mainly Jewish prisoners died during World War II, most in the notorious gas chambers.
The theft -- which police said may have been ordered by a private collector or a group of individuals -- sparked widespread outrage.
"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," Polish President Lech Kaczynski said in a statement.
An Israeli deputy prime minister called the theft "an abominable act" while a leading Israeli holocaust memorial group said it was "a declaration of war."
Auschwitz-Birkenau Museum spokesman Jaroslaw Mensfelt told AFP that thieves carried out an expert operation to take the metal sign just before dawn on Friday.
"It's a profanation of the place where more than a million people were murdered. It's shameful," he said.
The five-metre (16-foot) long sign was forged by prisoners on the orders of the Nazis, who set up the camp after invading Poland in 1939. It was not hard to unhook from above the entrance gate "but you needed to know how," Mensfelt said.
A police dog team was tracking the thieves while detectives combed through video surveillance footage from the site and neighbouring areas.
In Israel, Avner Shalev, director of the Yad Vashem Holocaust memorial said "this act constitutes a true declaration of war."
"We don't know the identity of the perpetrators but I assume they are neo-Nazis," Shalev said in a statement. "These people want to bring Europe back 70 years to the dark years of death and destruction," he added.
Silvan Shalom -- one of Israel's deputy premiers, who in April represented Israel at the camp's annual March of the Living memorial event -- branded the theft "an abominable act that amounts to profanation."
Mensfelt said it was the first serious case of theft at Auschwitz, near the southern town of Oswiecim, which was annexed by Germany during World War II. The site has been a Polish state-run museum and memorial since the war ended in 1945.
"All leads are being considered, but we are focusing on a theft ordered by a private collector or a group of individuals," Oswiecim police spokeswoman Malgorzata Jurecka told news agencies.
Police offered a 5,000-zloty (1,200-euro/1,700-dollar) reward for information leading to the recovery of the sign or the arrest of the thieves.
Kaczynski called on the public to help. "It's our collective duty to return it to its rightful place from which it has been ripped by force," he said.
Nazi Germany initially created the camp for Polish resistance fighters in an army barracks in 1940.
Auschwitz was later expanded to become a vast complex, after razing the nearby village of Brzezinka -- Birkenau in German.
About 1.1 million people perished at Auschwitz-Birkenau -- one million of them Jews from Poland and the rest of Nazi-occupied Europe -- some from overwork, starvation and disease, but mostly in the gas chambers.
First Published: Saturday, December 19, 2009, 00:27