Photography, beyond the recreation, the pleasure, the excitement, may also at times serve a higher purpose, i.e. to report history. This article will humbly attempt to contribute to this mission.
Enjoying a respite in the winter rain, I decided to go and visit Breendonk, a fortress surrounded with water built early in the 20 th century, situated 30-40 minutes north of Brussels, in the direction of Antwerp.
Fort originally built to defend Antwerp at that time, it was turned into something quite different after 1940.
Before going, I did not know what to expect. I had already visited “Caserne Dossin” in Malines (Mechelen for Flemish speakers) which served as a retention center during WW II, and, although interesting, some of the prison cells had been converted into housing apartments (!), reducing the dramatic aspect of the location somewhat.
Breendonk is something else altogether.
After Belgium surrendered to the Nazi occupant in May 1940, it first became a prison, where 3.500 political prisoners, Jews, those who were thought to be a risk to the Nazi occupant were held.
After Germany invaded the Soviet Union, Russians living in Belgium, communists joined the above, as well as members of the Belgian Résistance. Most prisoners were submitted to forced labor: some 250.000 to 300.000 cubic meters of earth and sand were moved by camp prisoners during the war.
Upon arrival, one realizes it is going to be one of those life-changing experiences.
The barbed wire, the gatehouses, and the poster indicating that all trespassers will be shot, all contribute to the silent but oh so present violence of Breendonk.
As you enter, there are two rooms, one is a memorial from some of the more atrocious camps where people were exterminated.
Each urn holds ashes coming from the camp whose name is on the wall, with victims’ names below. The second room is the remembrance room, which served as canteen and SS tribunal as the swastika on the wall testifies.
The visit continues through one of those long and gloomy corridors. The humidity contributes to the murky atmosphere.
One then walks on to the rooms occupied by people detained in Breendonk. One has to imagine that it is extremely humid inside the fort, poorly if at all heated; prisoners were underfed on purpose, with little clothing.
In some cases, detainees were sent to solitary confinement. In those little cells, prisoners were ordered to stand up all the time and not allowed to move.
Cruelty for cruelty’s sake.
There are some pictures of detainees, which show the very poor state in which they found themselves. Prisoners were regularly subject to horrendous treatment (e.g. when SS Major Philip Schmitt in charge of the fort sent his dog to attack detainees).
As you walk along, another long, very long corridor…
Which may have led you to the torture room, used after 1942 to interrogate members of the Résistance.
The hook, the instruments on the table, one cannot begin to imagine what must have taken place between those walls.
The cynicism reaches a peak when you see that the doctor sent to Breendonk to inspect prisoners, regularly at first but less and less as time went on, wrote concerning those who died there that they suffered “circulatory problems leading to cardiac arrest” as a for example.
This very corridor may also have led you to death as people were shot. The firing squad was activated as reprisals when members of the Résistance killed German soldiers.
People were also hung after they had been sentenced to death,
Or sent onward to an extermination camp by train.
The number of people who lost their life in Breendonk illustrates the profound sadness that one experiences during this visit.
For history’s sake, a trial took place in Malines in 1947, to judge a few, but far from all, that undertook these barbaric actions. 12 of them were sentenced to the death penalty.
This is my third experience of the kind, after having visited “Caserne Dossin” as mentioned earlier, and also Oranienburg-Sachsenhausen close to Berlin. There are no words to describe how one feels after such a visit. Just as much as I was interested to go, I was eager to leave.
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