LONDON — Two teenagers from one of Britain’s most prestigious private schools have been arrested in Poland, accused of stealing historic artifacts from Auschwitz.
The 17-year-old boys, who go to school in Cambridge, allegedly took a comb and buttons, which once belonged to prisoners held at the notorious Nazi death camp.
The Perse School students, who cannot be named for legal reasons, were on a school history trip designed to bolster classroom teaching about the horrors of the Holocaust. More than 1 million people were put to death at Auschwitz.
A spokesman for the school claimed the boys had “picked up the items without thinking.”
Staff at the historic site believed the teenagers were acting suspiciously on Monday afternoon near the Kanada area of Auschwitz II—Birkenau Camp. When police officers searched the students, they found the buttons, two pieces of glass, part of a comb, and a fragment of a razor.
The boys were questioned by Polish detectives through a translator and detained overnight. In a statement, the school said the students were helping officials with their investigation, but a police officer in Krakow told The Guardian that the boys had refused to cooperate.
Under Polish law, the boys could have been jailed for 10 years for stealing objects of historical value, but in the end they were released without having to pay a fine, supposedly because they did not have jobs.
Ed Elliott, the Perse School principal, apologized unreservedly for the actions of two boys at the $25,000-a-year school, which counts Roger Waters and Dave Gilmour of Pink Floyd and numerous politicians and judges among its former students.
“Removal of historical artifacts is clearly wrong and a very serious matter. We apologize for any thoughtless and offensive behavior by these two pupils,” he said.
“It is still too soon to comment on the details of this case. But it is particularly sad that a situation of this kind had arisen in the course of a visit to a location such as this. The whole party was deeply aware of the scale of the tragedy associated with Birkenau and the other camps of the Holocaust.”
One of the school’s deputy heads is with the boys in Poland.
Karen Pollock, chief executive of the Holocaust Educational Trust, issued a statement condemning the boys’ conduct.
"In over 15 years of organizing for thousands of British teenagers to visit Auschwitz-Birkenau, we have never known of such an incident,” she 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.”
The boys picked up the remnants in the area where the prisoners would be first taken on arriving at the camps. Their most valuable possessions were shipped back to Germany, but many more remained in these warehouses. At the end of the war, Nazi guards burned down some of the buildings in an attempt to disguise the scale of what they had done.
Archeologists and historians are still finding new artifacts at the site.
Correction: This article originally stated that the boys were picked up near the Block 5 building at Auschwitz, which was incorrect.