Israelis confess to Auschwitz memorial theft

June 25, 2011 - 4:15 PM

WARSAW, Poland (AP) — An Israeli couple has confessed to stealing objects from the Auschwitz-Birkenau Nazi death camp memorial and have settled for a suspended prison term and a fine, officials said Saturday.

The couple were detained at Krakow airport on their way to Israel on Friday after border guards found a few old items, including knives, scissors and spoons inside a plastic bag in their luggage, memorial spokesman Bartosz Bartyzel told The Associated Press.

The 60-year-old man and 57-year-old woman, whose names have not been released, said they took the items from the memorial site, officials said. Police took them back there and the couple indicated a place in Birkenau where, during World War II, belongings robbed off the death camp victims were stored, the chief spokesman for the memorial, Jaroslaw Mensfelt, told the AP.

"We can safely assume that the objects they stole where original, from that time," Mensfelt said.

Prosecutor Mariusz Slomka told Polish media that the couple confessed to stealing the objects, that have historic value, and settled for a suspended prison term and a fine, which Slomka did not specify. The couple are free to return to Israel, Slomka said.

Mensfelt said that last month a 51-year-old French tourist was detained at Krakow airport with barbed wire from a fence surrounding the memorial in his luggage. He was released because the wire was contemporary.

In another case, a court has asked prosecutors to take up again the case against two Canadian teachers who last year stole screws from historic railway tracks leading into Birkenau. Initially, the prosecutors did not consider the offense grave enough and stopped their probe. But the staff of the memorial appealed that decision in court.

In the most notorious case of theft at Auschwitz, a Swedish man and five Poles have been convicted and handed prison terms for stealing and damaging the "Arbeit Macht Frei" (Work Sets You Free) sign from Auschwitz main gate in 2009. The sign has been retrieved and repaired. A replica has been put in its place.

Stealing historic objects from museums in Poland can carry up to 10 years in prison.

During World War II, between 1940-45, Nazi Germans killed more than 1 million people — mostly Jews — at Auschwitz-Birkenau.