WARSAW, Poland (CBS/AP) For the million people who entered the Auschwitz death camp, but never walked out, the sign above the entrance offered a gruesome sense of irony. It read: "Work will set you free."
The entrance gate of the Auschwitz Nazi concentration camp in Oswiecim, southern Poland on Jan. 26, 2005.
That sign was stolen Friday morning, according to Polish officials, who say the sign disappeared from the Auschwitz memorial between 3:30 a.m. and 5 a.m.
The 16-foot-long, 90-pound iron sign at the Holocaust memorial site in southern Poland appeared to have been unscrewed on one side and torn off on the other, police spokeswoman Katarzyna Padlo said.
Photo: Part of the Auschwitz war crimes court inspects the former Nazi extermination center in Poland in Dec. 1964
Police deployed 50 investigators and a search dog to the Auschwitz grounds, Padlo said.
Auschwitz museum spokesman Jaroslaw Mensfelt said they believe thieves carried the sign 300 yards to an opening in a barbed-wire gap in a concrete wall. That opening had been left intentionally to preserve a poplar tree dating back to the time of the war.
Photo: Candles are lit Jan. 27, 2005 for Holocaust victims who were deported to Auschwitz by the Nazis from loading ramp station in Berlin.
The sniffer dog led police to a spot outside the wall where the sign left an imprint in freshly fallen snow, then to a roadside where the sign appeared to have been loaded onto a getaway vehicle.
More than 1 million people, mostly Jews, died during World War II at Auschwitz.
The theft of the Nazis' infamous iron sign to the camp entrance brought immediate condemnation worldwide.
"The theft of such a symbolic object is an attack on the memory of the Holocaust, and an escalation from those elements that would like to return us to darker days," Yad Vashem Chairman Avner Shalev said in a statement from Jerusalem.
"The sign has to be found," said Noach Flug, an Auschwitz survivor and president of the committee. "The slogan and the camp itself will tell what happened even when we won't be able to tell anymore."
Poland's chief rabbi, Michael Schudrich, said he had trouble imagining who would steal the sign but said that whoever stole had desecrated "world memory."
"Auschwitz has to stand intact because without it, we are without the world's greatest reminder - physical reminder - of what we are capable of doing to each other," he said.
An exact replica of the sign, produced when the original received restoration work years ago, was quickly hung in its place.
Padlo said police were offering a 5,000-zloty ($1,700) reward for public tips about the thieves.