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