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?