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5 arrested as Auschwitz sign recovered

Police have arrested five men accused of stealing the infamous sign from Auschwitz last Friday.
Police have arrested five men accused of stealing the infamous sign from Auschwitz last Friday.
  • Police arrest five men after recovering a sign stolen from Auschwitz
  • The sign read "Work Sets You Free" or "Albeit Macht Frei"
  • The men are believed not to be neo-Nazis as some had speculated

(CNN) -- Police in Poland have recovered the infamous sign stolen from the front gate of the Auschwitz concentration camp and arrested five men, they announced Monday.

The "Arbeit Macht Frei" sign, which means "Work Sets You Free" in German and is synonymous with the Nazi camps of World War II, was stolen late last week from Auschwitz in Poland, police said Friday.

The theft prompted outrage around the world.

Five men in their 20s and 30s have been arrested, journalist Tomas Machala of CNN affiliate Polsat in the Polish capital Warsaw said Monday.

They were not neo-Nazis, he said, in response to speculation at the time of the theft that the far right was responsible.

"They have some criminal background," he said, noting they had been arrested for robbery and brawling in the past. He did not give their names.

Video: Holocaust symbol stolen

"They wanted to sell the sign and earn some money," he said. Police said it was too early to say if they acted on their own or were hired to commit the robbery. They face up to 10 years in prison if they are convicted, Machala said.

It is not clear how they managed to steal the sign, which was cut into three pieces into order to fit it into a car, he said.

They were arrested hundreds of miles north of the concentration camp memorial, near the city of Gdansk. The sign had been hidden in a forest, Machala said.

Police were "alerted at 5 a.m. local time on Friday by museum guards" that the sign, was stolen, according to police spokeswoman Agnieszka Szczygiel.

The heavy iron sign "was removed by being unscrewed on one side and pulled off on the other," Szczygiel said.

The police investigation is ongoing.

The chairman of Yad Vashem, Israel's Holocaust museum, called the theft shocking.

"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," Avner Shalev said Friday.

"I call on all enlightened forces in the world -- who fight against anti-semitism, racism, xenophobia and the hatred of the other -- to join together to combat these trends," he said.

More than 1 million people died in gas chambers or were starved to death in the Auschwitz-Birkenau concentration camp complex; about 90 percent of the victims were Jews.

Rabbi Marvin Hier, founder and dean of the Los Angeles-based Simon Wiesenthal Center, called the sign "the defining symbol of the Holocaust.

"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," Hier said. "The audacity and boldness of this crime deserves the full attention of the Polish government."

The center calls itself one of the largest international Jewish human rights organizations.

CNN's Laura Perez Maestro contributed to this report.