Lest We ForgetWhen we in the UK think about World War two, it is hard for us to comprehend what it musthave been like to live under the oppression of being occupied by the soldiers of another nation.Our own memories are made up of thoughts of fighting on a distant shore, rationing and theblitz. I have been interested in the second world war, how it came about, what really happenedand how did Hitler turn from a second rate artist into a genocidal tyrant? I have been working in Belgium for some months now and decided that to further my interest in his subject, that I would visit Fort Breendonk, some 20Km outside of Mechelen.A Short HistoryThe fort was built in 1909, as part of the Belgian chain of fortifications around Antwerp.Following the Belgian surrender to Germany (May 1940), the fortress was transformed into aninternment camp by the Nazis (primarily as a transit camp for transport to Auschwitz).At the end of August 1940, the Germans turned the fortress into a Polizeihaftlager (DetentionCamp, and three weeks later the first group of detainees arrived. The physical conditions atBreendonk were among the worst in Western Europe, with the camp commanders subjectingthe prisoners to terrible cruelty and violence.The total number of prisoners incarcerated in the camp (mainly Belgians) is estimated as havingranged from 3,000 to 3,600 of whom seven percent were Jews, but no precise figures areavailable. Some 300 persons perished in the camp from torture, harassment and the harshconditions, 164 were executed by shooting and 30 were hanged. In the camp, punishment
consisted of beatings, torture in a specially designed chamber, hanging or execution. There arealso reports of drowning and prisoners being buried up to their necks and beaten and kicked todeath, all of which was compulsory viewing for the remaining prisoners.The fort was liberated in September 1944 and was then used to house political prisoners andcollaborators. Following this, it was turned into a museum in 1947.February 5th 2011This was the second time I had visited Breendonk, (this time I had my camera) and once againthe skies were grey and unforgiving, but Breendonk had not changed. Through the barbed wire,silent and lonely, it still stood before me, like an abandoned child who had never known love,and whose heart still craved affection but could no longer force a tear, so cold and yet soneedy. It was a cold and wet February morning when the gates of Fort Breendonk came into view.Even before I entered I was faced with areminder of its evil past, with a sign on itsbarb wired gate saying “Halt if you enteryou will be shot”.
As I entered through the thick doors of Breendonk itself, I encountered what appeared to be corridor plunging down into a subterranean world, fresh from our nightmares. I immediately felt claustrophobic, hemmed in and frightened, and I could indeed believe that some seventy years ago, these walls were wet, with blood and sweat. Their foundations had creaked under heavy boots; painful screams, the sickening thud of wood beating against flesh, and the deafening sound of gunfire echoing through these walls.On the right was a room where the SSguards would spend their evenings gettingdrunk, under the ever present Swastika.
This only added to the feeling of helplessness and realisation. This was a Nazi concentrationcamp where prisoners, Jews, communists etc , were greeted with the words “Welcome toBreendonk. This is hell, and I’m the devil!”, from the voice of, Fernand Wyss, a sadistic 21-year-old boxer turned SS (Schutzstaffel – Protection Squadron) guard, who had built up a reputationas a man who took pleasure in beating not shooting or stabbing, but beating those in his chargeto a messy death. Once inside, the new detainees were brought to the courtyard where they would be made to stand facing the wall until they were processed, any movement would receive severe punishment.They were then given a number andwere no longer classed as humanbeings; this is in stark contrast to thestables, where the officer’s horses allhad their names on the wall.
Once inside, the fort was cold damp and noisy, its stone walls reflecting every sound, in the main corridor were the sleeping rooms, where 48 prisoners would spend their nights in beds two berths wide and three high, covered in straw sheets: With only a single stove for warmth and a single bucket for them to use as a toilet, (which understandably became rapidly full).Next to the sleeping rooms, were solitary cells, which housed the more “serious” prisoners.These consisted of a rough wooden bed, which was raised each morning and the prisoner wasmade to stand for up to 12 hours without any movement or touching the walls. If the prisonercould not achieve this, a hood was put over their heads and they were beaten
Across from the sleeping and solitary rooms, was the “Torture Chamber”, this consisted of a series of pulleys leading to a large steel hook and a box which had two ridges for standing on. The prisoners were stripped, their hands manacled (in a wooden handcuff) behind them and then winched into the air to endure the torture, which consisted of beatings, and the application of heat and electrics. This must have been unbearable for them, with the only respite being when you were lowered again, only to balance with bare feet on the ridges of the box below you.The room itself was very austere; it had a veryhigh ceiling and a groove in the floor to takeaway the blood and excrement from thevictims. During torture the doors were leftopen, so all could hear. The sound of torturemust have been almost as unbearable to thosewho were not receiving it.
The visit moved on through the toilet block, which I will leave alone, and then outside andaround the fort, where you came upon the view of the execution area.This consisted of 10 Poles to which the prisoners would be tied before being shot.
And the wooden gallows, designed to execute three people simultaneously This gave off an aura of despair and helplessness, the only light in a sea of darkness being the flowers that have been laid there by descendants of the prisoners and those who do not want us to forget.I completed the tour, with the stable block,showers and some presentations &information on Breendonk and other Naziconcentration Camps (of which there weremany).
The last thing you see before you leave Breendonk, is one of the the now infamous “cattlewagons” which carried up to 150 detainees at a time into the camp and also out of the camp tothe death camps in the east.The visit was both sobering and heart-rending, we are not talking just about Germans killingJews, we are talking about people, humans, many in the Flemish and German SS carrying outatrocities to their fellow men, they could even have been neighbours. When we talk about Concentration Camps, we are too easily pushed towards the Holocaust and the near successful extermination of a race of people; we tend not to hear about the others that suffered the same ordeals. The Eastern Europeans, who were deemed racially inferior, the Gypsies, Political Prisoners,Resistance Fighters and the Mentally or Physically Disabled, or indeed anyone who stood up tothe invaders. They all fell victim to the same Angel of Death.
Breendonk stands for those people, a stark reminder to us all of what we can do to our fellow-man when we have total power over them, it is a reminder of our inhumanity and we mustreflect and ask ourselves, what would I have done in that situation?The journey that is “Breendonk” is not just a historical one, it is a journey of the soul, it is as ifall those who suffered there still remain, to show us what can happen and to make sure it neverdoes again. As you leave Breendonk, you will see a memorial dedicated to all who suffered there. It is quite poignant, as it is difficult to view without seeing the ever present outline of the guard posts erected to prevent prisoners escaping. Perhaps this view brings together the despair of the past with the hopes of the present and future. And perhaps one day that abandoned child will open her heart and shed a tear for all who passed through Breendonk.....