#971. The way some shot … and killed (photographing Breendonk camp)

By Pascal Ollier | Opinion

Feb 25

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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  • jean pierre guaron says:

    Sorry Pascal – I simply cannot deal with this. I cannot pass one of the plaques you see all over the place in France, without succumbing to convulsive sobbing. I COULD not complete my tour of one of the synagogues in Prague, when I found a display of paintings by the children they took and murdered – alongside a list of names that stretched beyond the range of my tear drenched vision. I simply fled from the building, and waiting outside for my wife to come and find me.

    It might have stopped before I was even 3 years old. But the pain hasn’t. I appreciate your effort in putting this post together, but I cannot look at it.

    • Pascal Ollier says:

      Dear Pete, I can fully understand and just as much respect your position. At the same time, for the generations who will follow us, the information must be passed on to avoid any kind of encore. This is also photography’s mission.
      I obviously raised the issue with Pascal J. before proposing my article, and we both agreed that Dear Susan was indeed also there to pass on such a message.
      For those like you who are aware, painfully so, this article is superfluous.
      But most people are not, and if this tiny article contributes just one little bit to spreading the right word, we could, in my humble opinion, call it mission accomplished.

  • Alan says:

    Jean Pierre, I am similarly affected and think I would go mad with rage and sorrow if I couldn’t shut it out or ‘compartmentalize’ this knowledge. It certainly didn’t end in 1945 and, every minute of every day, extreme cruelty and atrocity is happening. We live in a beautiful and wonderful world but there’s another side over which we have little control.

    Pascal, these are very moving photos. We felt a similar deep sadness at S21 in Phnom Penh, a high school turned into one of the hundreds of torture and murder centres operated by the Khmer Rouge. It’s a very quiet place and, as you experienced, we were keen to go there but happy to leave.

    • Pascal Ollier says:

      Thank you Alan, I will confess not an easy exercise.
      The atmosphere hits you in the gut and photography has to remain restrained, yet illustrate what happened.

  • Patrick says:

    Thank you, Pascal, for bringing us to Breendonk. Not pleasant experience, I admit, but authentic and historic.

    A change of scenery….why not !?

    • jean pierre guaron says:

      I must admit, once I realised what it was I sped straight through to the bottom. I may be wrong on this, because of it. But am I right in thinking it was devoid of tourists? – and people brandishing selfie sticks?

      • Pascal Ollier says:

        There were few people indeed, Pete, and not a selfie stick to be seen, thank God for that.
        Most people we came across were silent.

  • Nancee Rostad says:

    Thank you for sharing your evocative and emotional images of Breendonk, Pascal. I too believe that it’s tremendously important to remind the world of the horrors of the past, in hopes that these atrocities won’t be repeated. Photography is the perfect medium for illustrating and sharing this shameful period in history – especially in the hands of a master like yourself. And DS is the perfect venue.

    • Pascal Ollier says:

      Dear Nancee, thank you for your extremely kind words coming from a genuine master. I am grateful to Pascal J. for letting me publish these pictures on DS, the message they try to convey is important.

  • Jean-Claude Louis says:

    Thank you, Pascal, for your sober and powerful treatment of a very painful subject. I take it as an important message to all of us to remain vigilant as authoritarianism and nationalism are again showing their ugly faces in many parts of the world.

  • Pascal, I read your post last night and needed time to process what it. My question; have we the human race learn’t from the past? Sadly no.

  • Pascal, Thanks for sharing. I read the post last night and needed time to process what it. My question; have we the human race learn’t from the past? Sadly no.

    • Pascal Ollier says:

      Dear Dallas, thank you for your comments. I may be just a tad less pessimistic and say that one has to be on the watch permanently. And this has to be one of photography’s missions to support that watch, and to spread the word – in my humble opinion.

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