Why Auschwitz sign's theft chilled me

The theft of the "Arbeit macht frei" ("Work sets you free") sign from the gates of Auschwitz extermination camp is more than sinister. It is an act of abuse against the world's most powerful testament of the depths of depravity to which man is capable of sinking.

The Holocaust was a terror of such magnitude that its repercussions still drive the actions of people not born when the crematoria of Auschwitz and the other camps belched forth their obscene fumes.

My own family was not immune from its effects. An uncle, Bernard, a joiner by trade, was one of the first British soldiers to enter Belsen, the camp in Germany to which remaining occupants of the extermination camps were force marched in the dying days of the war. What he saw there was so seared into his memory that he suffered periodic mental illness for the rest of his life.

Other witnesses emerged with a determination to reveal to the world evidence of the systematic slaughter. Among them were inmates of the camps themselves. Survivors of the Holocaust have played a key part in its influence on contemporary politics. They overcame unspeakable trauma to deliver the lessons of the Holocaust to succeeding generations, speaking in schools, colleges and universities, addressing public meetings and placing their ordeals on record.

I have been privileged to know some of them. Leon Greenman, who died last year, is believed to be the only English Jew sent to Auschwitz. In his 90s Leon was still addressing packed public meetings at which he would display his tattooed concentration camp number, 98288. He was driven by an awareness of the importance of his role as a first-hand witness of the atrocities, and of his duty to testify while he could.

Members of Leeds-based Holocaust Survivors' Friendship Association continue the work. I am proud to number among my friends activists Arek Hersh, Trude Silman, and Eugene Black, all Holocaust survivors. Their courage is beyond admiration. But their numbers are dwindling. The youngest are in their late 70s and were teenagers when they fell victim to the Nazis' final purge of Jews in the latter days of the war.

I cannot imagine the feelings of Holocaust survivors when they saw the reports of the theft of the words "Arbeit macht frei" from the gates of Auschwitz. Many read them at first hand as they entered the camp in 1944 when the last huge swath of victims was despatched from Hungary.

The theft of this symbol filled me with horror, reminding me of the continuing attempt by Holocaust deniers and apologists to erase evidence of the depravity of nazism. Indeed, the theft risked symbolising the nazism's resurgence, and the continuing growth of racism embraced and promoted by organisations such as the British National party. With the sign now returned and five suspects arrested, however, reports are quoting the district police chief denying that those responsible are members of a neo-Nazi group.

It is worth remembering that now, as in the 1930s and 40s, lies are the foundation on which the philosophy of racism is built. The Holocaust itself depended on deceit for its implementation: promises of relocation, a new life in the east, and at Auschwitz the words "Work sets you free." Even as the victims of the gas chamber were undressing for their "shower" they were told to memorise the numbered hook on which they had hanged their clothes, in order to reclaim them afterwards.

The preservation of Auschwitz is vital. It is the world's most powerful remaining symbol of the ultimate outcome of racism.

Peter Lazenby, chairman of the Leeds branch of the NUJ and Joint Father of the NUJ Chapel at Yorkshire Post Newspapers.