On the inner walls of the fortress of Breendonk there are names. They are anonymous and date back to a distant past. But as you penetrate further into the fortress, the anonymity is broken, the names get faces, they tell horrible stories and the past comes closer and closer.
A different purpose
The Belgian fort of Breendonk, just south of Antwerp, was built about a hundred years ago to keep people out. Later, during the Second World War, it was used to keep men and women in. The German SS had taken possession of the fortress to turn it into a concentration camp. Jews, communists, resistance fighters and other prisoners ended up in this hell that was run by both German and Flemish SS. Breendonk was known as a prison where excessive force was used against inmates.
To enter the fortress, you must first pass a barbed wire fence. It says “Halt, anyone who goes beyond this will be shot” in three languages. Then you cross a bridge and enter a kind of tunnel that leads to long corridors with cells and other rooms on either side. For the people who came here, there was little light at the end of that tunnel. Yet Fort Breendonk was not an extermination camp. Of the approximately 3,600 prisoners who stayed in the fortress during the war years, just over 300 died on the spot. They died of starvation or maltreatment, or were executed or hanged. Other prisoners were transported to notorious concentration camps in Europe where most died. More than half of the Breendonk prisoners would not survive the war…
The fortress is frighteningly authentic. Much has been preserved over time. In the prisoners’ quarters, there are still bunk beds with straw bags. The torture chamber still houses the torture instruments used to extract confessions. Often they were also used because the guards simply enjoyed torturing themselves. The gutters in the floor for the drainage of, among other things, blood give you the shivers. The isolation cells are small and degrading. The gallows and the execution yard are still there as they were during the war and bear silent witness to the crimes committed by the guards.
SS men, German and Flemish, enjoyed beating, humiliating, abusing and even killing prisoners, often without any reason. The dog of the German camp commander was also used to bite prisoners. The statements of both victims and perpetrators are shocking. During the walk through the fortress, these stories are repeated through the audio guide. You can read the stories and you can hear them, whereby you become indignant about the role of the executioners. Some prisoners were also given a bit of responsibility and participated in the acts of violence.
The walls with the names of the prisoners are in the corridor, in the room on the left at the beginning of the visit, with urns containing the ashes of concentration camp victims in the same room. Ironically, on the opposite side is the room where the SS liked to hang out. The German eagle, the swastika, the SS death’s head and the text “Meine Ehre heiβt Treue” can still be seen in the former recreation room, next to large photos of resistance fighters who were tried here and later executed in the fortress.
Guilt and punishment
As soon as you cross the bridge and enter the heart of the Breendonk fortress, you are plunged into a story of guilt and punishment. The brutality of the guards here makes you rebel. The question to be asked here is: what would I have done?