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Camp Prisoner Uniform Jacket Worn by William Luksenburg

Uniform jacket worn by William Luksenberg while imprisoned in forced labor camps.
US Holocaust Memorial Museum
View this Clothing

tags: belongings forced labor liberation

type: Clothing

During World War II, most prisoners in German concentration camps were issued uniforms for a variety of reasons.1 Because prisoners stood out in the uniforms, escape became more difficult. The clothing also demoralized them, making innocent people appear to be convicts. When William (Welek) Luksenburg was given a prisoner number in the Gleiwitz labor camp in 1943, he thought to himself that the only supposed crime he had committed was being born Jewish.2 The uniforms—which prisoners called “zebra clothing”—had an impact on the guards, as well, who could now see the prisoners as a mass of criminals and not as individuals.3 Uniforms often fit poorly as a result of either deliberate actions or indifference on the part of the guards, adding to the discomfort of the prisoners.

This uniform jacket was worn by William Luksenburg, a Polish Jew born in 1923 in Dąbrowa Górnicza, Poland. In 1943, Luksenburg was deported to the Blechhammer camp and then a few weeks later to Gleiwitz, both part of the larger complex of camps around Auschwitz. By the start of 1945, he had been sent to Oranienburg, a subcamp of Sachsenhausen, where he received this jacket. In early 1945, he was transferred to the Flossenbürg concentration camp and finally to one of its almost 80 subcamps, Regensburg.4

Luksenburg’s jacket is made from semi-synthetic fibers, with navy stripes printed on grey fabric. Although many prisoner uniforms had insignia that made prisoners' status in the camps immediately visible, by the end of the war they were not always used.5 When Luksenburg wore this jacket, stripes were visible on both sides of the fabric. Grey lining was added by the US Holocaust Memorial Museum to help preserve it. Although Luksenburg wore the uniform during forced labor outdoors in the winter of 1945, the material was not warm enough to protect him from the cold. Working to repair German railway lines in Regensburg, he secretly lined his jacket with paper for warmth. He removed the lining at the end of the day because prisoners were inspected upon return to the camp. The poor quality of this fabric was unsuited for hard labor. A large hole in the neck shows how the material was worn down by loading heavy stones into wagons at the quarry in Flossenbürg.

This jacket shows signs of alterations. An adjustment to the jacket's shoulders is visible on the front where the stripes cross each other. Some prisoners altered clothing as they rapidly lost weight from starvation and malnutrition. Such repairs or items of clothing themselves were often traded for food in the camps.6 The alterations to this jacket could have been done by a previous wearer and not by Luksenburg. Prisoners were not usually issued new clothing, but instead given dirty, used uniforms.7 It is possible that the jacket's buttons were added after the war.

During a death march from Regensburg in 1945, Luksenburg was too weak to go on and moved to the side of the road, unseen by guards. According to Luksenburg's oral testimony, a local farmer took him to his farm where Luksenburg's uniform was removed—filthy and infested with lice—and buried.8 Luksenburg noted the location. Following liberation, he returned to the farm, where the farmer's wife boiled the jacket and returned it to him.9

Like Luksenburg, some survivors kept their uniforms, even wearing them in post-liberation reenactments.10 Why did Luksenburg return to recover this symbol of imprisonment and forced labor? What aspects of his experience are revealed by the jacket? Luksenburg later recalled, “I had a vision that someday, somewhere, somebody's going to want to see how we looked, and that's going to be part of the story."11

Although striped blue and grey uniforms have come to represent prisoners' experiences of the concentration camp system, many prisoners never received a uniform. For example, due to shortages in Auschwitz, by 1942 many prisoners wore civilian clothing with markings. See Iwaszko, T. (2000), 'The Housing, Clothing and Feeding of the Prisoners,' in W. Długoborski and F. Piper (eds.), Auschwitz 1940–1945, Central Issues in the History of the Camp, Vol. II: 'The Prisoners: Their Life and Work,' Oświęcim: Auschwitz-Birkenau State Museum, 58. For different types of articles distributed in concentration camps, see Sofia Pantouvaki, "Typology and Symbolism in Prisoners’ Concentration Camp Clothing during World War II," Endymatologika 4 (2012): 80–87.

 

Uniforms were not the only parts of the enforced dehumanization process, but tied in closely with removing body hair, issuing footwear and a number for use instead of a person's name. For more, see James Taylor, "Concentration Camp Uniform as a Tool of Subjugation and a Symbol of the Holocaust," in Bodies in Conflict: Corporeality, Materiality and Transformation (Routledge, 2014), 147. For further information on "criminal biology" and the criminalization of Jews, see Richard F. Wetzell, Inventing the Criminal: A History of German Criminology, 1880–1945 (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2000), 179–232; Alan E. Steinweis, Studying the Jew: Scholarly Antisemitism in Nazi Germany (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2006), 137-42.

For more on the history of the Flossenbürg camp, see the related web resource.

The Luksenburg jacket does not have his prisoner number or a triangle. According to Luksenburg, as American troops moved through the area, an soldier approached him with a razor saying, "A souvenir" and removed his Star of David and prisoner number 187295 patch. A red triangle was also removed. For an example of these markings, see Erich Sakofski's uniform, worn in Flossenbürg. It includes a cap, pants, a coat, and a jacket.

Sofia Pantouvaki, "Narratives of clothing: Concentration Camp Dress as a Companion to Survival," International Journal of Fashion Studies 1.1 (2014): 29–31. For discussion of clothing and appearance as a means to survive in Auschwitz, see Noah Benninga, "The Bricolage of Death Jewish Possessions and the Fashioning of the Prisoner Elite in Auschwitz-Birkenau, 1942–1945" in Objects of War: The Material Culture of Conflict and Displacement, Leora Auslander, Tara Zahra, ed. (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 2018), 189–220.

See Lizou Fenyvesi, "Reading Prisoner Uniforms: The Concentration Camp Prisoner Uniform as a Primary Source for Historical Research," Textile Narratives & Conversions: Proceedings of the 10th Biennial Symposium of the Textile Society of America, October 11–14, Toronto, Ontario (2006).

 

While Luksenburg made this claim in his oral history with the US Holocaust Memorial Museum, the story differs in an earlier interview. During a 1989 meeting with USHMM staff, he explained that after he escaped to the farm during the death march, an American soldier liberated him there. The soldier took his identificaton badge and Star of David as a souvenir, then made him bury the jacket. Luksenburg explained that he later came back to get it.

Helen Luksenburg, William Luksenburg's wife (whom he met in Gleiwitz), noted in this oral history the irony of seeing the US Holocaust Memorial Museum handling the jacket with so much care. Still, she concluded, "that’s how they handle it now because it [is] very precious."

For information on the use of uniforms in post-liberation reenactments by survivors, as well as survivors posing in studio portraits in uniforms (not necessarily their own) to commemorate their experience and survival. See Rachel E. Perry, "The Holocaust Is Present: Reenacting the Holocaust, Then and Now," Holocaust Studies 26.2 (2020): 152–80. In addition, some uniforms were reused after the war for other prisoners, for example for German prisoners of war in Majdanek. See Fenyvesi, "Reading Prisoner Uniforms," 356.

Luksenburg also referred to the jacket as a form of evidence; see "Holocaust Museum Will Be a Lasting Material and Spiritual Experience,Los Angeles Times, Oct. 22, 1989.

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Archival Information for This Item

Source (Credit)
US Holocaust Memorial Museum
Accession Number 1988.132.1
Date Created
May 1944 to May 1945
Dimensions Height: 22.875 inches (58.103 cm) - Width: 15.125 inches (38.418 cm)
Material Wood pulp made to resemble cloth. Metal buttons.
Owner
William Luksenburg
Location
Oranienburg, Germany (historical)
Flossenburg (Weiden), Germany
Regensburg, Germany
Blechhammer, Poland (historical)
Gleiwitz, Poland (historical)
Object Type Clothing
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