When I was fifteen-years-old, I was an exchange student in Germany. My host family took me to Dachau Concentration Camp and I have never been the same since. I’d been prepared for the unimaginable horror I was sure I would feel there; the same horror I’d felt reading Elie Wiesel’s Night. But when I got there, it was even more unimaginable than I’d expected: it was clean. Sterile. It conveyed nothing of the atrocities that had occurred there. Or perhaps I was too young to appreciate that this was a memorial to those lives lost. I think I expected to walk back into time and see it as it was for those hundreds of thousands who suffered and died there during WWII.
I thought about that trip for years. I never could make sense of it. I wrote papers about it in high school. I studied about that terrible period of history during college. This past May, when Elie Wiesel spoke in Cincinnati, I went to see him, feeling it was the culmination of years of wondering and trying to understand it all.
And so, when I saw that there was a concentration camp in Belgium (which I’d never heard of before, despite all I’ve read on the subject), I had to go.
I took the train to Mechelen and then transferred to a small town named Willebroek. I walked through this modest town, past people’s homes and then suddenly arrived at the gates to the Fort Breendonk Memorial: the concentration camp. It was disconcerting, in a sense. What was a concentration camp doing along a road with houses? What did the people living in the high-rises think about when they looked out their windows and saw barbed wired encircling a labor camp?
Right from the start, it seemed intimidating; like someplace I shouldn’t go. But I paid my admission, rented an audio guide in English, and willingly followed in the footsteps of the Nazis pictured just outside the entrance.
The first thing I learned was that the barbed wire I’d taken pictures of was not there when Breendonk opened. Jews and captured Resistance fighters were tasked with putting that up.
The next thing I saw was the kitchen, which was used mainly by Nazis as a place to celebrate after executions.
Breendonk is one of the best preserved camps in Europe. It was not a death camp, but a work camp where prisoners dug and carried rocks until they dropped. That’s not to say that prisoners didn’t die here. Many did. During the course of the audio guide, we heard about the deaths of many who were either starved, hung, shot, or drowned in the moat surrounding the camp. Their death certificates often read “weak heart.”
It was eerie. I was the only one there for hours, despite the fact that I was there on a Saturday at noon. I walked into bunk after bunk, smelling the mustiness of damp, dank cement. I heard the creak of every door, and the resounding echos of dripping water as I wandered nervously through the camp. The hallways were chilly; the stories on the audio guide chilling. I wondered whether the place was haunted?
I went on, hesitant to walk inside every room, afraid of what I might find in them.
I learned the bunks were often infested with lice. I saw the torture chamber and the shower room, which was indeed, a shower room. But prisoners were forced to take showers quickly at the mercy of the guards who scalded and froze them while the commandant’s wife, Ilse, watched. Ilse was actually an American citizen who had to undergo extensive background checks before she could marry her Nazi husband, Phillip. They are pictured in one of the rooms with their dog, Lump, who viciously bit the prisoners.
Phillip was the first German war criminal tried in Belgium. I wondered whether he had a “weak heart,” too?
I walked and walked, skirting the outside as well as inside. I saw the execution square and the moat where a 17-year-old was slowly weighed down with mud as he cried for his mother until eventually, he drowned.
I listened to accounts of people starving, or eating mud and dirt, or food that landed in dung. I saw the small isolation chambers where prisoners were forced to stand at attention all day without leaning against a wall or sitting. I saw the pulley and hook that prisoners were hung from while they were questioned and tortured. I heard the horror stories and walked where 3500 prisoners had walked. It became a little more real for me. Too real. I couldn’t take it anymore. I had to leave.
I’ll never make sense of the Holocaust or what happened. How could I? It is inconceivable to me. The best I can do is try to remember those people who lost their lives. I tried to remember every name, feeling it was my duty to honor them as individuals. Alas, I can’t remember any. There are too many names; too many stories; too many deaths. Breendonk reminded me of that. It was a place of Rememberance, and a place I will never forget.
In answer to a student’s question on how he could write about and relive such a terrible time in his life, Elie Wiesel said:
I could not be silent. A silent witness is not a witness.
I commend Belgium for bearing witness as well.
What do you think? Would you add a concentration camp visit to your itinerary?
A beautiful, haunting post. That’s a tough question you ask. I’ve never visited a concentration camp but somehow feel that it’s my duty to do so at one point in my life just as I feel that it’s my duty to read the memoirs – to listen to the lost voices, to hear the stories. Thank you for your post.
Thank you, letizia. Yes, that’s exactly how I feel — that it’s my duty to listen to their stories and remember them. But there are so many…
Great post, thank you! I totally agree that there is no way your mind can grasp the atrocity that is a concentration camp. Being German, my family has always tried to made a point of talking about this part of our history -I’ve read a lot of books, watched a lot of programms, visited a lot of exhibitons, memorials, a few concentration camps… But I just don’t get there, I just don’t UNDERSTAND -it’s like everything evil came together and culminated in a man-made machine that seems impossible to have existed in reality. But it did. And it’s important to know about it, so that you make the connection in your head when it comes to racism, intolerance, hate, inhumanity and INDIFFERENCE. I can’t make the decision for anyone as if to visit a concentration camp because I think it can seriously affect you, and you might just not want to witness it that closely, but I encourage anyone to learn about it -and to discuss it. Keep talking about it, because we can’t undo what has happened, but we can hopefully prevent it from happening again, by speaking out against a mind-set that allows it. Kudos to you for writing that post!!
Thank you for your thoughtful comments, Vera. Like you said, visiting a camp and reading about it and hearing the stories – we try to put it all together and understand it. But even standing in the same spots where these atrocities happened, I just couldn’t conceive of what it must have been like. All we can do is remember the victims, and listen to their stories.
Thank you for taking us along with you as you walked the unfathomable ghostwalk around Breendonk. It was very compassionately written and something we all need to keep reading and processing.
Thanks, Vancyne. I love your phrase “unfathomable ghostwalk.” That is such a perfect description.
A very well written post! That gave me chills! I really don’t think I would ever be able to go visit a concentration camp – just thinking of the atrocities that went on within those walls is enough to give me nightmares.
You know, Pauline, you just made me wonder if perhaps we don’t naturally disattach ourselves when we go to places like this. Maybe a form of emotional protection? You made me think.
Juliann I applaud you for being able to visit these places without wanting to cry. And thanks for the info; I didn’t know either that there was a concentration camp in Belgium, of all places! Beautifully written post! When I was in Germany last year, I opted out of a concentration camp visit that a couple of other travelers I met had invited me to. No matter how much I planned on visiting one, when I actually got there, I just couldn’t do it. I can’t understand nor do I want to stomach the evil behind everything that happened not too long ago. I read the book “In the Garden of Beasts” by Erik Larson just to get a better understanding of everything that happened in the heart of it all, in Berlin, because really, no matter how much you learn in History classes and books, it’s always a different experience for every person in that era.
I agree with you completely. It’s very different in person and not something that everyone would choose to do. I haven’t read that book yet, but like Eric Larson’s work. I’ll have to check it out!
I have always been so disturbed by this time in history after watching Alain Resnais’ Night and Fog. I got goosebumps reading this post as I did when I watched it. A great commentary on your feelings.
Thank you. This period of history is very disturbing. Maybe because it wasn’t so long aog??
Fort Breendonk is haunted. I know this because I have a photo of a ghost taken there. I took photos at random. One of the photos has a ghost in it.
That does not surprise me at all. I didn’t capture anything on film, but imagined that there must be spirits lingering there.
I am going back to Breendonk soon. This time with my camera and new video camera plus a new tripod.. I will take over 1000 photos and two hours of video over one weekend. I love this place. Its like going back in time. The history is very interesting. I will travel from England and visit Breendonk on a Saturday and then again Sunday. Then return to England via the Eurotunnel.
If I ever travel to Belgium again with my family, we’ll definitely re-visit Breendonk, too. It’s such an important piece of history. Good luck with your video and pictures. I know there’s plenty of material there to explore.
I visited the Breendonk Concentration Camp while touring Europe in the summer of 1970. What I remember is different than what I see now at the Fort Breendonk official web site. The poles at the firing squad execution positions were full of bullet holes and completely splintered at the tops. One cell had scratches in the plaster where a prisoner was trying to construct a crude calendar. There were rooms with piles of personal effects still there; suitcases, shoes, even human hair. Also I recall a room with with glass cases tabletop high, containing the ledger books with what must have been the names of the dead.
Seeing all that has had a profound effect on me all my life long. I must keep in mind that I am a citizen of a country that has tortured prisoners as an official policy within recent memory. With impunity.
Wow! Thanks for sharing all this. It sounds like it has changed a lot since then. It had a profound effect on me, too. I can’t imagine how even more hard-hitting it would have been with the artifacts you mention.
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