lest we forget4
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- 1. Lest We ForgetWhen we in the UK think about World War two, it is hard for us to comprehend what it musthave been like to live under the oppression of being occupied by the soldiers of another nation.Our own memories are made up of thoughts of fighting on a distant shore, rationing and theblitz. I have been interested in the second world war, how it came about, what really happenedand how did Hitler turn from a second rate artist into a genocidal tyrant?I have been working in Belgium forsome months now and decided that tofurther my interest in his subject, that Iwould visit Fort Breendonk, some20Km outside of Mechelen.A Short HistoryThe fort was built in 1909, as part of the Belgian chain of fortifications around Antwerp.Following the Belgian surrender to Germany (May 1940), the fortress was transformed into aninternment camp by the Nazis (primarily as a transit camp for transport to Auschwitz).At the end of August 1940, the Germans turned the fortress into a Polizeihaftlager (DetentionCamp, and three weeks later the first group of detainees arrived. The physical conditions atBreendonk were among the worst in Western Europe, with the camp commanders subjectingthe prisoners to terrible cruelty and violence.The total number of prisoners incarcerated in the camp (mainly Belgians) is estimated as havingranged from 3,000 to 3,600 of whom seven percent were Jews, but no precise figures areavailable. Some 300 persons perished in the camp from torture, harassment and the harshconditions, 164 were executed by shooting and 30 were hanged. In the camp, punishment
2. consisted of beatings, torture in a specially designed chamber, hanging or execution. There arealso reports of drowning and prisoners being buried up to their necks and beaten and kicked todeath, all of which was compulsory viewing for the remaining prisoners.The fort was liberated in September 1944 and was then used to house political prisoners andcollaborators. Following this, it was turned into a museum in 1947.February 5th 2011This was the second time I had visited Breendonk, (this time I had my camera) and once againthe skies were grey and unforgiving, but Breendonk had not changed. Through the barbed wire,silent and lonely, it still stood before me, like an abandoned child who had never known love,and whose heart still craved affection but could no longer force a tear, so cold and yet soneedy.It was a cold and wet Februarymorning when the gates of FortBreendonk came into view.Even before I entered I was faced with areminder of its evil past, with a sign on itsbarb wired gate saying Halt if you enteryou will be shot. 3. As I entered through the thick doors ofBreendonk itself, I encountered whatappeared to be corridor plunging downinto a subterranean world, fresh from ournightmares.I immediately felt claustrophobic,hemmed in and frightened, and I couldindeed believe that some seventy yearsago, these walls were wet, with blood andsweat. Their foundations had creakedunder heavy boots; painful screams, thesickening thud of wood beating againstflesh, and the deafening sound of gunfireechoing through these walls.On the right was a room where the SSguards would spend their evenings gettingdrunk, under the ever present Swastika. 4. This only added to the feeling of helplessness and realisation. This was a Nazi concentrationcamp where prisoners, Jews, communists etc , were greeted with the words Welcome toBreendonk. This is hell, and Im the devil!, from the voice of, Fernand Wyss, a sadistic 21-year-old boxer turned SS (Schutzstaffel Protection Squadron) guard, who had built up a reputationas a man who took pleasure in beating not shooting or stabbing, but beating those in his chargeto a messy death. Once inside, the new detainees were brought to the courtyard where they would be made to stand facing the wall until they were processed, any movement would receive severe punishment.They were then given a number andwere no longer classed as humanbeings; this is in stark contrast to thestables, where the officers horses allhad their names on the wall. 5. Once inside, the fort was cold damp and noisy, its stone wallsreflecting every sound, in the main corridor were the sleepingrooms, where 48 prisoners would spend their nights in bedstwo berths wide and three high, covered in straw sheets:With only a single stove for warmth and a single bucket forthem to use as a toilet, (which understandably became rapidlyfull).Next to the sleeping rooms, were solitary cells, which housed the more serious prisoners.These consisted of a rough wooden bed, which was raised each morning and the prisoner wasmade to stand for up to 12 hours without any movement or touching the walls. If the prisonercould not achieve this, a hood was put over their heads and they were beaten 6. Across from the sleeping and solitary rooms,was the Torture Chamber, this consisted ofa series of pulleys leading to a large steelhook and a box which had two ridges forstanding on. The prisoners were stripped,their hands manacled (in a woodenhandcuff) behind them and then winchedinto the air to endure the torture, whichconsisted of beatings, and the application ofheat and electrics. This must have beenunbearable for them, with the only respitebeing when you were lowered again, only tobalance with bare feet on the ridges of thebox below you.The room itself was very austere; it had a veryhigh ceiling and a groove in the floor to takeaway the blood and excrement from thevictims. During torture the doors were leftopen, so all could hear. The sound of torturemust have been almost as unbearable to thosewho were not receiving it. 7. The visit moved on through the toilet block, which I will leave alone, and then outside andaround the fort, where you came upon the view of the execution area.This consisted of 10 Poles to which the prisoners would be tied before being shot. 8. And the wooden gallows, designed to execute three people simultaneously This gave off an aura of despair and helplessness, the only light in a sea of darkness being the flowers that have been laid there by descendants of the prisoners and those who do not want us to forget.I completed the tour, with the stable block,showers and some presentations &information on Breendonk and other Naziconcentration Camps (of which there weremany). 9. The last thing you see before you leave Breendonk, is one of the the now infamous cattlewagons which carried up to 150 detainees at a time into the camp and also out of the camp tothe death camps in the east.The visit was both sobering and heart-rending, we are not talking just about Germans killingJews, we are talking about people, humans, many in the Flemish and German SS carrying outatrocities to their fellow men, they could even have been neighbours.When we talk aboutConcentration Camps, weare too easily pushedtowards the Holocaust andthe near successfulextermination of a race ofpeople; we tend not to hearabout the others thatsuffered the same ordeals.The Eastern Europeans, whowere deemed raciallyinferior, the Gypsies,Political Prisoners,Resistance Fighters and the Mentally or Physically Disabled, or indeed anyone who stood up tothe invaders. They all fell victim to the same Angel of Death. 10. Breendonk stands for those people, a stark reminder to us all of what we can do to our fellow-man when we have total power over them, it is a reminder of our inhumanity and we mustreflect and ask ourselves, what would I have done in that situation?The journey that is Breendonk is not just a historical one, it is a journey of the soul, it is as ifall those who suffered there still remain, to show us what can happen and to make sure it neverdoes again. As you leave Breendonk, you will see a memorial dedicated to all who suffered there. It is quite poignant, as it is difficult to view without seeing the ever present outline of the guard posts erected to prevent prisoners escaping. Perhaps this view brings together the despair of the past with the hopes of the present and future. And perhaps one day that abandoned child will open her heart and shed a tear for all who passed through Breendonk.....