BERLIN — A heavy metal gate bearing the Nazis’ infamous concentration-camp slogan, “Arbeit Macht Frei” (Work Sets You Free), was stolen under cover of darkness on the weekend from the memorial site at the old Nazi camp of Dachau, just north of Munich, in what looked like a carefully planned crime, the authorities in Bavaria said Monday.
A similar theft of an “Arbeit Macht Frei” sign occurred at Auschwitz-Birkenau in Poland in 2009. The slogan was recovered after a few days, and in December 2010 a Swedish neo-Nazi and two Polish accomplices were jailed for their part in the theft.
The theft of the gate at Dachau was discovered early Sunday by the private security service that keeps a 24-hour watch on the site, in addition to frequent patrols by the police. Records suggested the theft occurred between midnight and 5:30 a.m., officials said.
Dachau was the first camp opened by the Nazis to incarcerate their political opponents, starting shortly after Adolf Hitler came to power in 1933.
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Gabriele Hammermann, who has worked there since 1997 and headed it since 2009, expressed revulsion at the violation of the site, where the Nazis imprisoned about 200,000 people over 12 years. An estimated 41,500 met their deaths at the camp, which was liberated by U.S. troops days before World War II ended in Europe in May 1945.
“It was a terrible shock,” Hammermann said. “This is the most important symbol of the concentration camp.”
Hammermann and police investigators said that at least two adults must have been involved, noting that the thieves not only had to cut the heavy, 6.5-footlong object loose but also had to heave it over an outer gate. By police estimates, the piece weighed as much as 225 pounds.
Hammermann said that, in protecting sites like Dachau, a careful balance had to be struck between providing enough security and not turning these symbols of a totalitarian state into sites bristling with instruments of modern surveillance.
“How do you protect them and at the same not interfere with the authentic structure? You have to weigh it all,” particularly in consultation with survivors, she said.
Dachau is the most visited former concentration camp in Germany, she said, with an estimated 800,000 visitors a year. Most are schoolchildren from Bavaria and elsewhere in Germany, but there are also many Americans, Australians and increasingly Italians, whose World War II partisans were often incarcerated in Dachau.
Ludwig Spaenle, Bavaria’s culture minister, visited Dachau on Monday and said the thieves had dealt “a blow in the innermost heart of the memorial.” His spokesman, Ludwig Unger, a historian, added by telephone: “For anyone who has critically examined the history of the Third Reich, this is a shock. The concept ‘Arbeit Macht Frei’ precisely hid the fact that people were murdered and exploited.”