Concentration camp uniform

Collection Highlights | Updated 3 years ago

A museum display of a uniform worm in a concentration camp
Concentration camp uniform
Image copyright of WA Museum

Worn by Stefan Gebski, a Polish political prisoner, who was imprisoned in a number of concentration camps by the Nazis during the Second World War.

Millions of Jews, together with other categories of prisoner, were murdered during the Holocaust. Two out of three European Jews died, and in Poland, Lithuania, Latvia and Czechoslovakia nine out of ten died.

Stefan Gebski was born in Poland in 1921 into a middle class Catholic family. In 1936 he joined the Polish army where he completed his schooling and undertook military training. He was a conscientious student with ambitions to become a lawyer. That ambition was shattered when the German army invaded Poland in September 1939. At just 18 years of age his world was to change forever.

Within twelve months of the invasion Stefan and his father were arrested and imprisoned in their home town. In September 1941 Stefan was sent to the infamous Auschwitz Concentration Camp as a political prisoner. He managed to escape from Auschwitz, during the chaos created by a sudden and dramatic thunderstorm, and quickly reached the protection of the Polish underground.

He gained false papers and immediately changed his identity along with those of his immediate family. In an endeavour to reach Switzerland and ultimately England, Stefan moved to Germany, but was recaptured within a couple of months by the Gestapo, this time under a false name, and once again found himself imprisoned.

For the next few years Stefan endured the horrific conditions of a number of concentration camps throughout Germany and as far afield as France, including Dora in late 1943 where he remained until March 1945. In this month he was moved to Sachsenhausen Concentration Camp. Sachsenhausen was liberated two months later.

The red triangle on the top left-hand side of the jacket signified that Stefan Gebski, who wore the uniform, was a political prisoner. A ‘P’ inside the triangle signified that he was Polish and three red crosses alerted the prison officers that he was a serious political threat and never to be released from Natzweiler, the camp in which he was imprisoned when issued with the uniform. The symbol also tells us that the wearer was no longer known as Stefan Gebski; instead he was number 138577 - his identity and destiny were marked out on his clothing.

But this uniform has other meanings beyond the immediate association of the concentration camps.
Following the wartime camps, Stefan moved through many Displaced Persons camps over the next five years awaiting a country to accept him as a refugee. It was in the post-war camps that he met and married a young Polish woman, Helena, and their first son, George, was born. In 1949 he and his family were finally accepted by Australia as refugees arriving in Fremantle on 2 March 1950.
The question remains: why did Stefan keep the concentration camp uniform for all this time? At first it was a matter of necessity. They had few possessions in the Displaced Person camps, having traded most of their Red Cross parcels to support the health of their infant son. With virtually only the clothes on his back, he still used his concentration camp uniform on arrival at the Northam migrant camps. Although quickly issued with new clothing, Stefan still chose to keep his prison uniform. By now he considered it – the only material evidence of his time in the camps – part of his story, a story he wanted to make known to the world. During his time in the concentration camps he had determined that he would survive to tell the world of the atrocities which took place.

In 1972 Stefan approached the Western Australian Museum and offered the uniform to the State collection. For Stefan the State museum was a place where his story could be told and verified in a very public way.

History Department collection