The infamous “Arbeit Macht Frei” sign that arched over the main entrance to the Auschwitz concentration camp has been repaired. It was stolen in December of 2009 and cut into three pieces by Polish thieves hired by Swedish former neo-Nazi Anders Högström. The sign was recovered less than 72 hours after the theft and conservators at the Auschwitz-Birkenau State Museum immediately began the careful work of piecing it back together.
A replica was put in place over the entrance while they restored the original. The sign wasn’t just cleanly cut into three pieces. The thieves tore it from its place, bending, crushing and twisting the wrought iron tubes in the process. There were scratches and dents all over the surface. The “i” in “Frei” actually remained attached to the arch because the thieves weren’t able to wrench it off with the rest of the sign. Restorers therefore had to spend a great deal of time documenting and analyzing the components to fix the damage and determine how best to move forward. They hired a master blacksmith to do the final step of welding the pieces back together. On Wednesday, May 18, officials announced that the sign was intact once more.
They have decided not to return it to its original location, however. Once the sign was fully restored, Piotr Cywinski, the director of the museum, proposed to the International Auschwitz Council that the sign be kept indoors in an environment ideal for its conservation: namely, controlled humidity and a constant temperature between 17 and 19 degrees Celsius. If it were out in the open again, it would quickly degrade so that in a few years it would need to be removed for intensive conservation.
The International Auschwitz Council is a 25-member body composed of Holocaust survivors, historians, religious leaders, human rights workers and others that oversees the historical site. On Thursday they officially confirmed that the sign would be placed in a new exhibition hall inside the museum. The new space is still under development; it will be several years before it’s ready for visitors. The replica will remain outside in the original location.