auschwitz
The sign "Arbeit macht frei" (Work makes you free) is pictured at the main gate of Auschwitz-BirkenauKacper Pempel/Reuters

Two boys from the £15,500-a-year Perse school in Cambridge have been released after being caught stealing artefacts from the museum at the site of Auschwitz death camp, in Poland.

The boys underwent a body and bag search after security guards spotted them acting suspiciously, and found a fragment of a razor, a piece of spoon, a number of buttons and two pieces of glass, a spokesperson for Auschwitz museum spokesman said.

The Polish authorities released the 17-year-olds without further action after they "apologised unreservedly and expressed real remorse for their action" for "picking up items without thinking", the school said.

Auschwitz-Birkenau, where more than one million people - most of them Jews - perished during the Nazi Holocaust, is situated about an hour's drive from the Polish city of Krakow.

"The boys, neither of whom is yet 18, picked up the fragments in the Canada section of the camp. They co-operated fully with the authorities and admitted taking the items. They are deeply sorry for the offence they have caused," a spokesman for the school was reported in The Times as saying.

The teenagers could have faced a maximum 10-year prison sentence and a hefty fine for stealing artefacts of historical importance.

Headmaster Ed Elliott 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. Removal of historical artefacts is clearly wrong and a very serious matter. We apologise for any thoughtless and offensive behaviour by these two pupils."

Karen Pollock, chief executive of the Holocaust Education Trust, told the Jewish Chronicle: "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.

"We have a duty to educate the next generation to prevent ignorance and hate, and in over 15 years of organising for thousands of British teenagers to visit Auschwitz-Birkenau, we have never known of such an incident."