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Teens Detained for Stealing From Auschwitz, Then Let Go

Two British students spent the night in a Polish prison after allegedly nabbing glass, a spoon, buttons and the remains of a hair clipper

Jas Chana
June 23, 2015
Sean Gallup/Getty Images
Visitors walk into Auschwitz I museum in Oswiecim, Poland, January 25, 2015. Sean Gallup/Getty Images
Sean Gallup/Getty Images
Visitors walk into Auschwitz I museum in Oswiecim, Poland, January 25, 2015. Sean Gallup/Getty Images

A pair of British teenagers have reportedly been freed after stealing possessions from the museum at the former Auschwitz death camp. The boys, aged 17 and 18, were with their school on an educational tour when they were caught with historical artifacts that once belonged to Holocaust victims, inside their backpacks. The students, who were detained at 3 p.m. on Monday, and spent the night in a Polish jail, face a maximum term of ten years if convicted, reported The Guardian.

The teenagers were spotted by security guards in block 5, a part of the concentration camp where personal belongings of prisoners were stowed during World War II. This prompted the guards to search the students’ bags in which they allegedly found fragments of glass, a piece of a spoon, buttons and the remains of a hair clipper. Local police reported that the students had found the items on the ground where, apparently, these types of Holocaust-era items are commonly found. According to The Independent, “Following the camp’s liberation, the warehouses were torched by guards but rainfall often brings small—once buried—objects up to the surface.”

The guards reported the incident to the local police who detained the kids, and interrogated them using a translator. The alleged criminals spent last night in “a special jail for youths,” The Guardian reported. The Malopolska police deputy inspector Mariusz Ciarka told the Krakow Gazette that the boys had maintained their innocence throughout questioning, adding that they did not seem unfamiliar with “the dramatic history associated with Auschwitz.”

“We have a duty to educate the next generation to prevent ignorance and hate, and in over 15 years of organizing for thousands of British teenagers to visit Auschwitz-Birkenau, we have never known of such an incident. We would gladly work with these young boys to ensure they understand the implications of their actions although this is now a matter for the police.”

The teenagers supposed ignorance might make this seem like a unique case, but stealing from the former concentration camp is not an uncommon occurrence. In April 2014, an Italian tourist tried to smuggle a 16-inch strand of barbed wire from Auschwitz out of the country. A few months later a German teacher was caught with ten stolen artifacts, including a fork and a pair of scissors. Most notoriously, a Swedish man was jailed in 2014 for planning to steal the “Arbeit macht frei” gate (“Work sets you free”) from the Dachau concentration camp.

The Jewish Chronicle quoted Karen Pollock, CEO of the Holocaust Educational Trust, who said, “This is absolutely shocking and shows gross disregard to the memory of the Holocaust. Every single artefact found at Auschwitz-Birkenau tells a story of the more than a million people who were ruthlessly murdered by the Nazis there and this incident serves to show why our work is crucial now more than ever.

The teenagers in question this week attend The Perse School, an independent secondary school located in Cambridge. A spokesperson for the school said that the two pupils are cooperating with Polish authorities: “We understand they have explained that they picked up the items without thinking, and they have apologized unreservedly for the offense they have given, and expressed real remorse for their action,” The Independent reported.

Today, the BBC reported the teenagers were let go, and fined about £170.

Jas Chana is a former intern at Tablet.