The wrought-iron sign above the entrance to Auschwitz with the infamous slogan ‘Arbeit Macht Frei’ has been stolen.
The sign, which is believed to have been stolen before 5 o’clock this morning using a ladder, had been unscrewed on one side and then wrenched off.
The theft is the first major act of vandalism to be committed on the site, which stands as a memorial to the six million Jews and other miniorities murderd by the Nazis.
The theft drew immediate condemnation from Jewish leaders world wide. Yad Vashem Chairman Avner Shalev said: "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."
"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."
Karen Pollock, Chief Executive of the Holocaust Educational Trust, commented: “The Nazi death camp Auschwitz-Birkenau stands as a universal symbol of the Holocaust and for millions of victims, the sign represented the cynical cruelty of Nazi rule.
"We are disgusted by this appalling act of vandalism and the gross disregard it shows to all Holocaust Survivors and the families of those who lost loved ones there."
Poland's Chief Rabbi Michael Schudrich told AP: "If they are pranksters, they'd have to be sick pranksters, or someone with a political agenda. But whoever has done it has 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."
Museum guards called the Polish police after noticing the five-metre long sign was missing, and over 20 criminal investigators and sniffer dogs searched the camp and the surrounding area.
Police spokeswoman Katarzyna Padlo said there were as yet no suspects, but police said they were pursuing different lines of enquiry. No-one from the camp or the police were prepared to comment on whether CCTV footage was available of the theft.
The curved iron sign which stretches across the entrance to the death camp where up to a million Jews perished is one of the most famous symbols of Nazi atrocities, with the words in German meaning “Work will set you free”.
It was a popular Nazi slogan, used at the entrance to Dachau and Sachsenhausen concentation camps, but the words have come to symbolise Auschwitz in particular.
Auschwitz official Pawel Sawicki said: “It's a terrible thing. The sign means everything - it's a symbol of what Auschwitz stands for. But a place where hundreds of thousands of people died obviously doesn't mean anything to the thieves."
Auschwitz museum officials have replaced the sign with a temporary one until the police can recover the stolen piece. All vistors have been informed about the theft, said Mr Sawicki.