OSWIECIM, Poland — Polish authorities stepped up security checks at airports and border crossings and searched scrap metal yards Saturday as the search intensified for the infamous Nazi sign stolen from the Auschwitz death camp memorial.
The brazen predawn theft Friday of one of the Holocaust's most chilling and notorious symbols sparked outrage from around the world, and Polish leaders have declared recovering the 16-foot sign a national priority.
The sign bearing the German words Arbeit macht frei — Work sets you free — spanned the entrance to the Auschwitz death camp, where more than 1 million people, mostly Jews, were killed during World War II.
Police deployed 50 officers, including 20 detectives, and a search dog to the Auschwitz grounds, where barracks, watchtowers and rows of barbed wire stand as testament to the atrocities of Nazi Germany.
Spokeswoman Katarzyna Padlo said police had questioned all security guards at the site and searched local scrap metal businesses, while Dariusz Nowak, a police spokesman in Krakow, said investigators were working round the clock on the case.
The director of the Auschwitz-Birkenau memorial museum, Piotr Cywinski, said he believes the theft was carried out by professionals.
Security guards patrol the 940-acre site round the clock, but due to its vast size they only pass by any one area at intervals. Cywinski said that gave thieves 20 to 30 minutes to remove the sign and carry it off.
An exact replica of the sign, produced when the original underwent restoration work years ago, was quickly hung in its place Friday.
The Simon Wiesenthal Center, a leading Jewish human rights group, urged Poland to intensify its investigation and bring the thieves to justice.
"The fact is that the Arbeit macht frei sign has become 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," said Rabbi Marvin Hier, the center's founder and dean.