Saturday, August 25, 2012

Visiting Breendonk Part II: The Camp Tour

Jewish men and women of my generation (those born not long after World War II) have an almost visceral response to the words “concentration camp.” We picture packed cattle cars and lineups, we shudder at the thought of shower rooms pouring out gas instead of water, we imagine a giant tote board on which numbers of the dead are added up until the totals reach nearly 6 million.

All of those thoughts were going through my head as I walked through the gates leading into Breendonk. I don’t believe that any in our group—most of whom were not Jewish and were probably not having the same dark thoughts as I—had ever heard of concentration camps in Belgium before. Germany and Poland, definitely. We also knew about the Czech Republic, because Audrey and I had walked through Theresienstadt several years before when visiting our daughter Amanda in Prague. But Belgium? Wasn’t that too far to the west for the Germans to hide its existence from the rest of the world?

We soon learned that there had been two camps in Belgium, but that their purpose was not primarily to hold or exterminate Jews. These camps were reserved for imprisoning and torturing labor leaders (some of whom may have been Jewish), communists, socialists, and resistance fighters. Even a group of nationalistic postal workers were thrown into Breendonk. Most of Belgium’s 100,000 pre-War Jews were rounded up and forced into Mechelen, that charming city we had visited only a few hours before. There, they were packed onto cattle cars (see dark thoughts above) and transported east to places like Auschwitz, where most were simply eliminated. At Breendonk people weren’t killed in ovens; they were mostly starved to death. Some also died after trying to augment their meager diet with grass, insects, and dead vermin.

I expected Breendonk to resemble either Theresienstadt or Auschwitz, but that wasn’t the case. There was no sign reading, “Arbeit Macht Frei” [“Work will make you free,” that lovely German euphemism] when we entered, and no separate barracks buildings. There was a train car perched on a hill above the fort, but there did not seem to be any tracks leading directly into the camp. Instead, we were led into a gray, stone fortress—dark, foreboding, and ugly—by our guide, a youngish man named Kevin who spoke excellent English with some mild type of European accent. No one asked him where he was from, and he didn’t volunteer the information. Later, one of us asked if he was a historian by profession. He said that history was his hobby. From his comments, I decided that he was originally a sociologist or even a clergyman.
A cattle car stands above the fortress with its moat

Kevin was very serious as he welcomed us to Breendonk. He spoke the name in grave tones several times as we entered the building. Each time the word sounded darker and more ominous. One strange sidelight: Kevin was all business and very solemn in those first few minutes, yet he stopped to greet several fellow workers who were leaving for the day, calling each by name and offering each a cheerful expression that he quickly removed from his face after they had passed.

We were led into a small courtyard where Kevin demonstrated how new residents to Breendonk were treated upon their arrival. He asked one of our group (Pete volunteered) to step forward and face the building wall, from about one foot away. While Kevin spoke, Pete was expected to stand silently and unmoving, which he did for nearly five minutes. We all felt uncomfortable for him. Kevin explained that the actual Breendonk newcomers might have to stand there for many hours until their paperwork was processed and that movement or speech would be punished by a beating or worse. That was how Kevin set the mood for our visit to Breendonk. It was theater and a little more.

Our group enters the fort
The courtyard where new prisoners lined up
The theater continued throughout our tour. The message Kevin wanted to convey was that Breendonk was a place where evil dwelled for the four years it was in Nazi hands and where, presumably, evil was still in residence. We walked through narrow, dark, dank hallways and into dark, crowded, dank rooms used for barracks. We heard about what prisoners ate and how they washed the outside of their bodies and got rid of wastes from the inside into small buckets or onto the floors themselves. We saw photographs of evil capos (prisoners put in charge of other prisoners) who misused their power. We saw photographs and heard stories of the commandant and his Napoleonic sergeant, who was the real terror monger of Breendonk. I thought I heard his name as Schultz, but that was probably just my imagination. Certainly this Schultz would never say, “I hear nothing! I see nothing!” like the one in Hogan’s Heroes.

Camp staff: "Schultz" is on far right
The highlight was a torture chamber at the end of a long hall. We were told that the room had no doors, so that the sound of the torturing could be heard throughout the building. Breendonk was a place for teaching lessons to those who didn’t want to learn them.

The torture chamber with its ominous hook

I found it impossible to take out my camera through the visit. My camera is fairly large and conspicuous. Audrey snapped a few photos with her much smaller and less showy one. I’m not sure who else took pictures. I’m also not sure that we wanted any real keepsakes from Breendonk.

After we completed the tour, I rushed to the modern bathroom in the visitor center to soak my bee-stung hand and take a few Advil. I also wanted to separate myself from the prison/fort before we got back on our bikes.  

Our visit to Theresienstadt several years before had been very different. That time, we felt both sadness and anger. The anger was personal, especially when we learned that Audrey’s grandparents (her father’s parents) had been transported there from Germany and both died there six months apart, one in mid-1942 and one in early 1943. Breendonk didn’t inspire anger. It was too quiet and brooding. It sat hidden in western Belgium (after all, look how much trouble we had finding it), where it accepted rather than welcomed visitors. I understand that many Belgian schoolchildren come to Breendonk each year. I hope that they are not so much frightened by the place as disturbed by what it represents. I hope they hear and feel Kevin’s lament that there was once evil in Breendonk and that evil continues to exist in our world unless we choose to change it.

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