Johan and I visited Belgium recently and spent part of a day at Fort Breendonk. The fort was in use during World War I, but our primary interest, and what was contained in most of the fort, was the history of what took place there in World War II. During WWII it was used as a concentration transit camp.
I was aware it would be a day of healing for the past, present, and future. I was aware the day would impact me in ways I could not have imagined prior to visiting. I almost expected to be bombarded with voices and energy, yet that is not what happened. For the most part, it was serene, which did not fit with the amount of torture, abuse, and deprivation that took place there.
Walking into the front of the fort, it doesn’t look that big. However, when you walk across the bridge into the tunnel that leads into the heart of the fort, you quickly realize this is not a warm, friendly place. There are many rooms with photos that describe what the rooms were used for and provide stories of the men, women, and children who passed through the doors.
In one room there are twelve large photos of men who were executed at the fort for their Resistance activities. Across the hall from this room, there are walls filled with names of those who passed through this camp and those who died here. There are urn-like cylinders in the middle of the room with the names of the major concentration camps. There are flowers in the niches on one wall to honor those who are no longer with us. We must never forget.
Moving deeper into the fort we found barracks rooms with huge iron door bars which were placed across the door so no one could escape. Within each of the barracks rooms, we heard stories of those lived there, saw artifacts that were in the rooms, and felt the chill of death. Some rooms felt colder than others. Across from each barracks room were long sinks. I listened to one story that described what a prisoner had to do upon being woken each morning which included making their bed, washing up, getting dressed, and other things, all within 3-4 minutes. If they were even 1 second past the time limit allowed, they were denied food, coffee, water, and often subjected to hard labor for a day.
Not only were there barracks rooms but rooms with tiny cells for prisoners. In most of the cells we saw, no light would enter once the prisoner’s door was closed. I cannot imagine being locked in one of these rooms for even five minutes. The energy in those rooms did not feel good.
In the center of the fort, outside, we went into a small red building that had large photos of several SS men and women who worked at the camp. I could not sit and listen to every story because the ones I heard were terrible and my mind, heart, and soul were churning with questions. One man, Fernand Wyss, was one who loved torture. He was active in the torture chamber and often gave the final shot in executions. He was quoted as saying,
“I carried out so many assaults in Breendonk I can no longer tell one from the other. I was motivated by love of violence. This is hell and I am the devil (was his motto.)”
Fernand was 21 years old and was responsible for beating and killing at least 16 people and beating or abusing at least 167 people.
Hearing about him made me a bit sick. It didn’t help he looks just like someone I know in Europe either. I often wonder when we leave one life, do we show up in another looking almost the same and playing out some of those roles?
Many of the SS individuals featured in this building and through stories were tried by Belgian or German courts after the war and executed. A few were never found.
After you walk through 3/4 of the fort, you end up outside to walk around the back side where you find a work field and execution area. The outside today, is beautiful. Peaceful. Surrounded by a moat where you see birds, ducks, geese, and other animals. With a blue sky and sun shining brightly, for a moment you almost forget where you are. I wonder how many prisoners felt that way. Did any of them take comfort in the beauty that existed outside the dark, cold barracks and fort? Did it give any of them hope?
At the execution area, I walked in to read the plaques there, one of which contained the names of those who were executed. Trying to move farther into the area and look at the places where guns would have come out of the concrete fort structure, I felt an overwhelming sense of negative energy. It was too much and I had to walk away from that area. I cleared some energy and waited for Johan to finish reading the plaques. Then we moved back inside the fort to see the last few rooms, which contained a lot of Holocaust history and photos.
Leaving the fort, we walked across a bridge that felt and sounded like it had seen better days. From the bridge you could see one of the observation towers. I took some beautiful photos of the bridge and area and again had trouble reconciling what I was seeing on this beautiful day with the history of the place.
By this time we had been at the fort about three hours. The ticket lady told us to expect two to three hours for our visit. Looking at the fort, as I mentioned above, I didn’t think we’d be there that long. There really is a lot to see and hear there.
The fort had a small entrance fee and we were given audio tour radios to listen to the many stories throughout the space. The ticket area which contained a small gift shop also had the audio guide for the tour available for sale. I did not purchase that as I felt I was on overload and didn’t want any more of the energy with me after I left.
For those doing genealogical research, the fort has a lot of history, stories, and photos. It is a treasure trove for families who had someone imprisoned here or who worked here.
There is a nice restaurant just outside the fort entrance if you are hungry. We had a late lunch and sat in the sun trying to process what we had just experienced.
There are really no words for what took place here. A few days later I am still processing what I saw and heard. Johan and I sat outside behind the fort for a while discussing the stories. Wondering how people could be so horrific and enjoy abusing, torturing, and making life hell for others. What drives a person to become that? What has to happen in their lives (or past lives) that creates this?
The bigger question – what can we do or be to change this? To release the hate and heal? What else is possible?
© 2018 World War II Research & Writing Center