BERLIN — It was hard to know what was more shocking: the haplessness of the thieves who stole the “Arbeit Macht Frei” sign looming over Auschwitz, or the laxness of the security protecting this emblem of the Holocaust’s perversity and horror.

The thieves first tried to steal the sign, which means “Work Makes You Free,” last Thursday evening. But they lacked the right tools. Undetected, they drove to a hardware shop in the nearby town of Oswiecim and bought better tools. When they returned to the camp past midnight, there were no guards in sight, no evidence that surveillance cameras were functioning.

They set to work. Just as any visitor to the concentration camp could, they easily climbed atop the modest wrought-iron gate. They unbolted one side of the sign and then ripped off the 66-pound metal frame when the other side proved more difficult.

They then discovered the sign would not fit into their car, according to Artur Wrona, the prosecutor and lead investigator in the case. So they had to saw it in three pieces, but dropped the “i’ in Frei and left it behind.

“They were so unprofessional,” said Jaroslaw Mensfelt, spokesman for the Auschwitz-Birkenau Museum, a vast, eerie complex that covers nearly 500 acres and commemorates the slaughter of 1.1 million people, mostly Jews, but also thousands of Roma, homosexuals, conscientious objectors, and Soviet and German political prisoners. “They clearly did not do their homework,” he said.

The tale of the theft has prompted shock across Europe and criticism from Israel and Jewish groups. Poland’s president, Lech Kaczynski, said he was “shaken and outraged,” and Avner Shalev, the chairman of Yad Vashem, the Holocaust memorial in Jerusalem, issued a statement saying, “The theft of such a symbolic object is an attack on the memory of the Holocaust.”

Mr. Wrona, the prosecutor, was scathing in his criticism of security at what has become one of the most visited former Nazi concentration camps, attracting over a million visitors a year, calling it “glaring negligence.”

Theories of why someone would steal the infamous sign have raced through the local press, including a report that someone in Sweden had orchestrated the theft. While police officials in Poland and Sweden have not confirmed such accounts, local officials have said the evidence suggests that someone outside the country had a role in the theft.

To help understand the crime, officials brought three suspects to the scene on Monday to re-enact the events.

The dropped letter “i” offered investigators clues that the sign had been cut, and the Polish police embarked on an intense search.

They found the sign Monday, stashed away in a wooded area beneath a layer of snow in northern Poland, several hundred miles from the camp. But details have been sketchy as to where exactly it was found, or how. They arrested five men, though they have not said how they were led to them.

Lidia Puchacz, a forensics expert called in to examine the banner, told journalists on Tuesday that cutting and sawing tools used in the theft had been found at the home of one suspect.

All the suspects were brought to Oswiecim. Polish television showed them handcuffed and dressed in jeans and jackets, their faces covered by their jacket hoods, entering the police station.

Three of the suspects have already admitted to playing a role in the crime, according to Mr. Wrona. Two of them are refusing, so far, to cooperate.

In the meantime, a duplicate sign, prepared five years ago when the original was being refurbished, has been put up.

Despite the speculation that the sign could have been taken by neo-Nazis or others seeking to glorify the past, Mr. Wrona said the crime did not appear to be linked to any ideology. He said the lack of security allowed the perpetrators to approach the gate “unnoticed” and “undisturbed.”

Mr. Mensfelt, 47, who has been working at the Auschwitz Museum for the past 13 years, agreed that the security was not what it should be. It was not clear why the surveillance camera at the gate did not capture the theft, or why no security guards were on patrol.

But he did say that simply paying to keep the huge site open was an issue.

“The total museum budget in 2008 was about 6.8 million euros, partly through visitors and contributions,” he said, adding that the Polish government provided about 2.5 million euros a year. “Aid from abroad covers less than 5 percent of the budget,” he said.

“At the end of the day, we have to pay a staff of 250, of which 50 are security guards,” he said. “The personnel costs are over three million euros a year. You can see we are strapped for cash.”

Just two days before the theft, the German government provided a grant of up to 60 million euros for the protection of the site. The funds will be sent in the coming weeks to an oversight foundation.

Mr. Mensfelt said some small items had been stolen over the years, ever since the museum was created by an act of the Polish Parliament on July 2, 1947, but there had never been such a security breach as this.

Made in 1940 by Polish political prisoners, the sign remains one of the first things visitors see on approaching Auschwitz. Although much has been sanitized or destroyed, visitors today nevertheless get a real sense of the organization of the extermination camp, which was built on the site of a former army barracks.

Besides the ruined gas chambers and crematoriums, there are several hundred camp buildings, nine miles of camp fence, camp roads, and the railroad spur at Birkenau.

In addition to document archives, which Mr. Mensfelt said accounted for most of the security, there is an enormous collection of possessions.

“We have over 2,000 kilograms of human hair, we have so many personal possessions, 3,800 suitcases, 2,100 of which bear the names of their owners. We have diaries, spectacles, shoes, Jewish clothing.”

“It is a vast archive,” he said. “Who would have thought that the banner would be stolen?”



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