Photo Credit: Pimke via Wikimedia
Barbed wire perimeter fencing near the entrance to the Nazi death camp, Auschwitz I in Poland. Note the electrical insulators on the concrete fence-posts.

Yann P.-B. and William H., two Belgian nationals, both 52, were arrested in July while attempting to steal three porcelain isolators from the Auschwitz death camp electric fence, AFP reported. Their trial is scheduled to start February 28, in Krakow, Poland. The two could face 10 years in Polish prison, according to prosecutors.

All the items on the site of the Nazi death camp, which includes the electric fence, are property of the Auschwitz State Museum, which is on UNESCO’s World Heritage list.

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Auschwitz I was surrounded by double barbed wire electric fences and nine watch towers. One hopes that the trial would discover what possessed the two middle-aged Belgians to desire to take home some of it.

Last time someone tried to make off with an Auschwitz memorabilia was back in 2009, when a Swedish neo-Nazi, Anders Hogstrom, 34, stole the camp’s notoriously ironic “Arbeit Macht Frei” (Work Sets You Free) sign above the main gate. He was the mastermind of a gang of five Poles who planned to ship the sign to Sweden to be sold. Hogstrom received two years and eight months behind bars, time enough to contemplate the value of freedom.

The expression “Arbeit Macht Frei” comes from the title of a novel by German philologist Lorenz Diefenbach, Arbeit macht frei: Erzählung (story) von Lorenz Diefenbach (1873), in which gamblers and con men find the path to virtue through labor. The phrase was also used in French (“le travail rend libre!”) by Auguste Forel, a Swiss entomologist, neuroanatomist and psychiatrist, in his “Fourmis de la Suisse” “Ants of Switzerland” (1920). In 1922, the Deutsche Schulverein of Vienna, an ethnic nationalist “protective” organization of German citizens of the Austrian empire, printed membership stamps with the phrase Arbeit macht frei.

The slogan was first ordered placed above the entrance to concentration camps by SS General Theodor Eicke, inspector of concentration camps and second commandant of Dachau Concentration Camp. The slogan was first used over the gate of a “wild camp” in the city of Oranienburg (later rebuilt in 1936 as Sachsenhausen), which was set up in an abandoned brewery in March 1933.

In The Kingdom of Auschwitz, Otto Friedrich wrote about Rudolf Höss, regarding his decision to display the slogan at the entrance to Auschwitz: “He seems not to have intended it as a mockery, nor even to have intended it literally, as a false promise that those who worked to exhaustion would eventually be released, but rather as a kind of mystical declaration that self-sacrifice in the form of endless labor does in itself bring a kind of spiritual freedom.”

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