WARSAW — Polish police said early Monday they have recovered the Nazi German "Arbeit macht frei" sign stolen from the site of the Auschwitz death camp in southern Poland and arrested the alleged thieves.
"We have arrested five men aged from 20 to 39 in the north of Poland. The recovered sign has been cut up into three pieces," Dariusz Nowak, spokesman for the police in southern Krakow, told AFP.
"They were picked up shortly before midnight and the sign was found in a house," he added without giving further details.
The infamous metal sign five metres (16 feet) long which hung over the entrance to the Auschwitz death camp, now a museum, was stolen at dawn on Friday sparking a chorus of outrage from world leaders, Jewish groups and Holocaust survivors.
Learning of the sign's recovery, Pawel Sawicki, a spokesman for Auschwitz museum, told AFP: "It's an enormous relief. We are extremely grateful to the police who have done fantastic work."
He added: "This symbol, probably one of the most important of the past century, can be put back in its place.
"We're very impatient to see what condition the sign is in. We have been told it's been cut up into pieces. Our curators will get it restored so that it can be put up again as quickly as possible."
Auschwitz museum is preparing to celebrate the 65th anniversary of Auschwitz-Birkenau's liberation by the Red Army on January 27.
The sign, which means "Work Will Set You Free", came to symbolise the horror of the camp in Nazi occupied Poland where 1.1 million mainly Jewish prisoners died during World War II, from overwork and starvation but mostly in the gas chambers.
Auschwitz museum and other institutions offered a reward of nearly 30,000 euros (45,000 dollars) for information leading to the recovery of the sign and the arrest of the thieves.
On Friday a metal copy was put up over the entrance to the camp, visited by more than a million people last year.
Auschwitz was one of a network of camps set up by Nazi Germany for the extermination of six million Jews and others considered undesirable by Adolf Hitler's regime during the World War II Holocaust.
It was later expanded into a vast death camp, after the Nazis razed the nearby village of Brzezinka -- Birkenau in German. The site has been a Polish state-run museum and memorial since the war ended in 1945.
Museum director Piotr Cywinski, contacted by AFP, admitted the museum has had to make do with a rudimentary surveillance system, since much of its limited budget has been channelled into urgent renovation work.
"The surveillance was concentrated on the archives and exhibited objects, because no sane person could have imagined such an act," he said.
Polish President Lech Kaczynski said after the theft: "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."
His Israeli counterpart Shimon Peres expressed "the deepest shock of Israel's citizens and the Jewish community across the world," saying the "sign holds deep historical meaning for both Jews and non-Jews alike."
Rabbi Marvin Hier from the US-based Simon Wiesenthal Center said the sign was "the defining symbol of the Holocaust because everyone knew that this was not a place where work makes you free, but it was the place where millions of men, women, and children were brought for one purpose only -- to be murdered."