On Wednesday, Polish officials reported that the notorious sign that spanned the main gate of the Auschwitz-Birkenau concentration camp until its 2009 theft has been reassembled and nearly restored to its previous condition.
Workers at the site of the former Nazi death camp said they worked for nearly a year and a half restoring the sign bearing the Nazi’s infamous “Arbeit Macht Frei” (Work Sets You Free) slogan. The leader of the restoration project, Agnieszka Zydzik-Bialek, said the sign was “in very bad shape” when it was returned to the site, having been bent, fractured and into three pieces. She said the workers had to reverse the numerous deformations caused by “twisting”, bending, scratcing as well as removing the numerous dents on the sign’s pieces. A blacksmith welded the sign back together. On Wednesday, the restored sign was shown to the public for the first time.
The 2009 theft shocked the world and hit Holocaust survivors particularly hard. According to Piotr Cywinski, the director of the Auschwitz memorial in Southern Poland, the “The theft and destruction of the Arbeit Macht Frei sign was a symbolic attack on remembrance. The perpetrators nearly achieved their heinous goal, but they did not succeed.” More than one million Jews were murdered by Nazis at the camp from 1939-1945.
The motive for the theft is unknown, but the sign was found 3 days after its theft on the other side of Poland in a forest. Speculation points to an unknown collector who wanted the sign for himself. However, the police have not given any details regarding the motives, citing an ongoing investigation. Following the recovery of the sign, the Polish police arrested 5 Poles and their Swedish Neo-Nazi instigator, Anders Hoegstroem, who is currently jailed in his homeland after being convicted and sentenced in Poland. Hoegstroem is one of the founders of the far-right National Socialist Front party in Sweden known for having Neo-Nazi associations.
Currently, a replica of the sign stands in the original sign’s place. The decision whether to restore the original sign to the site’s entrance or to place it in an exhibit hall that is under development has not been reached as of late.