For 40 years, William Luksenburg kept his threadbare, blue and gray striped jacket from the Flossenberg concentration camp at the back of his closet.
The jacket had been thin comfort during the winter of 1944 at the concentration camp north of Nuremberg, Germany, and his sole physical remnant from a forced march that left him near death as the allies closed in on Hitler's troops.
"We were marching at night so they (the allies) wouldn't see us. People who fell back were being shot daily," Luksenburg remembers. "I felt that my time was very short. I was weak, I was starving. Every time I heard a shot I felt, 'I'll be next."'
After stumbling along for days, Luksenburg collapsed.
"I closed my eyes and expected a shot. But it never came," he said. "In the morning a farmer came up by oxen. He heard me by the side of the road and picked me up and took me to a farm."
The liberating U.S. 6th Army came into town the next day.
Luksenburg, who weighed 70 pounds, was hospitalized for about four months. He then made his way back to the farm and dug up the jacket, which had been buried because it was infested with lice.
"I felt I needed some evidence so people would see what we looked like," he said.
This year--over the objection of his daughter--Luksenburg gave the jacket to the National Holocaust Museum and Memorial, which will open in 1992 in Washington, D.C.
The jacket joins more than 10,000 items from the Nazi massacre that the museum has amassed in less than two years.
"You cannot describe in mere words what was happening to us," said Luksenburg, 65, who now lives in Silver Spring, Md. "But by looking at the jacket, people will possibly understand better."
Museum officials, who continue to search for items, have asked the public to donate materials from the experiences of the ghettos and the concentration camps.
The museum's relics already include a railroad boxcar used to transport Polish Jews to concentration camps, real or false passports, clothing, Stars of David, diaries, letters, armbands and photographs. They will stand in poignant contrast to the strong symbols of freedom of many landmarks in the nation's capital.
Museum officials say they want it that way.
"Our museum stands as a stark warning of what can happen when freedom and democracy go awry," says Sam Eskenazi, museum public affairs director. "It shows the depths of evil to which man is capable of sinking."
An act of Congress chartered the museum in 1980 after President Jimmy Carter pledged that future generations would learn the lessons of the Holocaust.
The federal government donated a 1.7-acre site adjacent to the Mall, 400 yards from the Washington Monument and next to the Bureau of Engraving and Printing. Construction began this summer.
The five-story, 250,000-square foot museum and memorial will be divided into three principal areas--the Hall of Witness, the Hall of Remembrance and the Hall of Learning.
Artifacts will cover 2 1/2 floors, documenting the history of the Holocaust from the rise of Hitler through the implementation of his "Final Solution."
The memorial will have a library of more than 100,000 volumes and archives and will be a major research center for scholars and the general public.
Films, photographs, artifacts and oral histories from survivors--and even the museum's architecture--will bring the Holocaust to life, Eskenazi said.
Small details in design--bridges across a skylight, brick walls, towers, metal gates, black steel trusses and false windows--are indirect references to the ghettos and concentration camps.
"It starts telling a story before you walk inside," said museum curator Susan Morganstein. "Just by looking at it, it tells you it's a fragmented story. The building is not easy, it makes you think."
Architect James Ingo Freed, a partner of I. M. Pei and Partners in New York City, designed the museum with the view that "the Holocaust defines a radical . . . break with the optimistic conception of continuous social and political improvement" underlying Western culture.
"I settled on an approach--the use of the tectonics of the camps, ghettos and some official buildings I had visited, along with a certain muted, somewhat abstract symbolism," he said. "There's a sense of no escape."
In the Hall of Witness, for example, metal braces will line brick walls amid boarded windows and gates, symbolizing the camps.
One of the bright sections of the museum will be the Wall of Remembrance, made up of 6,000 colorful tiles. American schoolchildren painted the tiles with their impressions of the Holocaust and the wall is dedicated to 1.5 million children killed by the Nazis.
The museum's education programs in the Hall of Learning will include orientation classes. A classroom area will be used for conferences and to assemble education materials and present curriculum for teachers to use in their courses about the Holocaust.
"This is an American project . . . with a mandate that covers different goals" from those of the Holocaust museum Yad Vashem in Jerusalem, said Morganstein. "We are mandated to tell the American side of the story," both the positive and the negative, what Americans did and did not do to help the Jews, she said.
The museum's permanent exhibit will begin with pictures of American GI liberators as they enter the camps in the spring of 1945. "The visitor enters the camps with the GIs and asks 'How did this happen?' " said Morganstein.
The exhibit then will step back in time to the era called "The Assault," 1933-1939, the murder in Germany of religious and ethnic minorities, political dissidents and the disabled, and the establishment of the Nuremberg Laws in 1935, isolating Jews from German society.
It then will move to the Holocaust years of 1939-45 and document the establishment of the ghettos, the transit camps of Western Europe and the killing centers in Eastern Europe, specifically Auschwitz, Buchenwald and Treblinka.
Finally, Holocaust survivors--at times in person as volunteers and also on videotape--will take visitors through the war's aftermath and the struggle to return to life in new countries, repatriation and the war crimes trials.
By law, the $100 million needed to build the museum must come from private sources. Organizers hope to raise a total of $147 million, with the extra money going toward an endowment.
"The uniqueness of this is both its sponsorship and its location. It's destined to be the preeminent Holocaust museum in the Free World," Morganstein said.