The sign which hung on the main gate at the Auschwitz death camp and which was stolen and cut into pieces in 2009, has been welded back together and restored almost to its previous condition, officials told The Associated Press on Wednesday.
According to the report, conservation workers said they have worked for nearly a year and a half photographing, analyzing and finally welding back together the pieces of the badly damaged sign, which bears the Nazi slogan “Arbeit Macht Frei” (Work Sets You Free).
The sign was stolen in December 2009 by what was described as “foreign trophy hunters.” Polish police recovered the sign several days after the theft, when a citizen responded to a reward offer and reported on suspicious moves by neighbors.
The five thieves, ages 20 to 39, were arrested after the 16-foot-long metal sign had been found cut into three pieces in a house. One of them, former Swedish neo-Nazi Anders Hogstrom, was sentenced in December to two years and eight months in prison for his part in the theft. A court in Cracow sentenced two of his Polish accomplices to 28 and 30 months behind bars.
“The theft and destruction of the Arbeit Macht Frei sign was a symbolic attack on remembrance,” Piotr Cywinski, the director of the memorial site in southern Poland, was quoted by AP as saying on Wednesday as he announced the completed restoration. “The perpetrators nearly achieved their heinous goal, but they did not succeed.”
Agnieszka Zydzik-Bialek, who led the conservation work, told AP that the sign was in very bad shape when it arrived in her workshop. She said that the thieves had not only cut it into pieces, but had also bent and fractured its metal tubes.
Zydzik-Bialek explained that in order to restore the sign, experts had to reverse not only the bent metal, but also the “twisting and crushing” that had been done to it.
Officials at the Auschwitz site said the restored sign will probably be eventually moved to an exhibition hall which is under development, and that a replica of the sign which presently stands at the entrance to the site will likely remain there. However, they said that no final decision had been made in the matter.
More than one million Jews were tortured and murdered by the Nazis during World War II in Auschwitz.