It’s a sunny day. The bright blue skies contrast with the dark grey structure I’m about to enter. I’m visiting the Fort of Breendonk, a former Nazi prison or concentration camp here in Belgium and now the National Breendonk Memorial.
Fort of Breendonk before WWII
Fort Breendonk is sadly best known for the horror that took place there during World War II, but it was built right before World War I as part of the second ring of defenses around the city of Antwerp.
The first ring was built after the war with Napoleon, when it had become clear that Belgium could not hold back an attack from the French if it came. It was also then that Antwerp was chosen as the last stronghold or the Reduit National in case of attack.
However, military weaponry evolved quickly between the mid-19th century and the beginning of the 20th century, so that the defenses of Antwerp were often revised and modified, including the construction of the Fort Breendonk, built from 1906 until 1914.
The fort played its part in World War I but had to surrender to the Germans within the year. History would repeat itself.
Fort Breekdonk during WWII
During the preparations for World War II, Fort of Breendonk was chosen as the quarter of King Leopold III in the case of an attack. The king arrived there May 10, 1940, but only six days later, the men at Fort Breendonk had to surrender.
The Germans moved in and turned Fort Breendonk into a detention camp for Jews and political prisoners. When the resistance in Belgium grew, so did the number of prisoners in Breendonk and Breendonk became a transit camp: each time the number of prisoners got too high, a part of them were sent away to the concentration camps in Austria, Germany, and the Netherlands.
Visiting Fort Breendonk today
The Fort Breendonk National Memorial wants to show visitors what life at this prison was like. That happens through information signs, but also with an audio guide and interviews with former prisoners displayed on screens throughout the Fort.
Walking around through the halls and rooms, it feels as if Fort Breendonk has been left completely unchanged. The severe cold inside – I'm shivering even with a hat and my winter jacket on – contrasts yet again with the blue sky outside, as does the grey exterior of the building.
I'm glad I'm visiting by myself. This place makes me quiet. But I'm not the only visitor today. There are a couple of foreign tourists and a group of school kids. The kids, or teenagers rather, are about 13 years old. “That's young to come to such a place”, I think, and I get a little closer to hear what their guide is telling them.
To my surprise, the guide doesn't make things sound less gruesome than they were. She talks about the terrible treatment prisoners received here from the guards, and how many people died here.
I still don't how I'd tell a group of kids about the history of the Fortress of Breendonk – and I don't know if I ever could – but I did notice that these kids seemed interested. They didn't play when their teachers didn't see it or make a lot of noise. They were listening attentively and asking questions after each explanation.
I wonder if they're less sensitive to the stories, as if the history of Fort Breendonk is just that to them – history. Obviously, I didn't ask them, but I do hope nobody ever becomes insensitive to what has happened here and throughout World War II, and I also hope there will always be teachers and guides taking it upon them to explain this part of history to younger generations.
I left the group again and continued with the tour. There are arrows all throughout the Fortress of Breendonk telling you where to go. This way, the halls inside and paths outside of the Fortress have become like a one-way street and you can never get lost.
At a certain moment, I happened upon another group. Adults, this time. Foreign tourists. They were being lead by a guide who'd taken them into the room you see pictured below. This room is normally not accessible, but I was lucky to be able to go in with them.
Well, “lucky” is maybe not the correct worth, as the things you'll feel while visiting Fort Breendonk are anything but positive emotions due to the stories you're confronted with.
The room below holds several urns with the ashes of people who've died in different concentration camps as well as the names of more than 3,500 who were held captive at this particular camp in Belgium.
Finally, I stepped outside again. The visit ended where it began: in front of the entrance of the Fort Breendonk. Does this place make you happy? Obviously not. Should you visit it? Absolutely. A part of Belgian, European and even world history is very well explained here and kept alive so that new generations will never forget.
Practical information Fort Breendonk
Fort Breendonk Memorial
Attention: if you use your GPS to get there, it's best to enter “Rijksweg” as the street address.
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PIN FOR LATER
I was a guest of the Fortress of Breendonk during my visit. Partnerships like these allow me to travel more and create new content for the blog. They'll never affect my opinion.
I remember going there a couple years ago and it is such a strange, sad feeling you get when walking through the main building. It is not a concentration camp, I had heard of before I traveled to Belgium however I am glad I got the chance to explore, although it is a very sad place. I too wrote about my experience, here is the link to my post if you would like to read it. https://abookofmaps.blogspot.ca/2014/03/breendonk-concentration-camp-place-of.html
It’s liek you say: not a happy place, but one I do think you should visit, especially if you want to understand Belgian and European history a bit.
The Guy Who Flies says
Fascinating read and history Sofie.
It is a tragic tale that such a fortress was built to protect the people of Belgium yet turned out to be a place of such horror for them.
This article is also very fitting as we are at the 70th anniversary of the liberation of so many concentration camps. Only yesterday the BBC were recalling their news reports from that time and making radio broadcasts as to what western journalists saw.
I myself have visited Auschwitz, probably the most famous concentration camp at all. Thankfully your article helps to highlight that there were so many of these horror locations across Europe during those dark days.
Like you say, I hope history does not dampen down the reality and somberness of these events. We are supposed to learn from history and hopefully future generations will sense this as being as real as we do today.
Hey, that’s strange, I just had to approve your comment here while you’ve commented so often already!
I’m glad you found it interesting Guy (or was I going to call you “Dude”?:p).
It is quite ironic, isn’t it. And I’m afraid it’s not the only time that happened. I’ve got a post scheduled about another fort in Belgium that was built to protect Belgium against attacks, but kind of failed to do so.
I have yet to visit Auschwitz myself. It’s something I want to do, but also not. I’m sure you know what I mean.
It’s important to keep writing and talking about things like this, so that they’re never forgotten or minimalized.
The Guy Who Flies says
Strange, maybe I should enter my name as “Due” to get auto approval ;-)
Yes, I fully understand how you feel about Auschwitz. I must admit that when I was there the emotion of all that I saw didn’t hit me. I’m not saying I am heartless at all. I think it was a sub-conscious self defence mechanism. I think if I fully comprehended emotionally what I was seeing then I wouldn’t be able to handle it. (Hope that makes sense.)
I hope you do make it there one day. Purely because so many people suffered there, it is an enduring monument and we owe them our respect for all that they suffered.
Hope to see your second Belgium related article at some point :-)
I think you should.
It makes sense. I’m afraid the opposite would be true for me. I’m pretty sensitive. When I see horrid stuff on the news, it can haunt me for days and I have to force myself not to think about it anymore. Which is why I’ve actually stopped watching the news. I read the papers, that’s bad enough.
But I’ll definitely go one day. I just need to make sure I plan something fun to do afterwards.
Oh I’ve got maaaaany articles on Belgium planned for the following two months :-)
This was great. However, I do have a question. In this case, we shall be taking public transit. Sometimes there are short cuts or helpful hints. Would it be better to travel to Fort Breendonk from Antwerp or Brussels? Wish you would have put a bit of information about “getting there.” Thanks for the tips about it being cold! That is very helpful as one of the family is extremely sensitive to cold temperatures.
The public transport connections can change throughout the year and I have over 600 posts on this blog. It would be too much work for me to keep them all up-to-date if I’d have to include bus connections and the like.
That’s why I prefer not giving that information, rather than having it be incorrect.
However, you can always check the website of De Lijn (buses in Flanders) or the NMBS (trains in Belgium) for up-to-date information.
Hope you have a great visit!