The Prisoners of Breendonk

— feeling smile
The Prisoners of Breendonk: Personal Histories from a World War II Concentration Camp - James M. Deem

Welcome to Breendonk. This space was originally named Fort Breendonk and was constructed before WWI to help protect against German attacks. The Nazi’s took over the area in 1940 and it was never officially considered a concentration camp, even though its treatment of its prisoners was harsh and severe. Breendonk was labeled a “reception” camp where they held their prisoners until they could move them to a different location. I have read quite a few books about this time period and I didn’t know this camp existed. Having a father-in-law who was a POW during this time period, I am drawn to stories of the struggles and the fights these individuals faced and survived during this period of history.   The novel covers the history of the camp, the comings and goings and the individuals who passed within its walls. It’s a chronicle journey with glossy and thick pages, it’s a classy book. I really enjoyed the pictures that accompany the text and thought they brought the story to life (some color and some black-and-whites). Some of these pictures the commandant had professionally done as he wanted to show off his camp. If you look closely though, you can see how the prisoners really felt about being there which was not the image the commandant was looking for at that time. There are also maps, forms, photos and even portraits drawn by one of the prisoners inside the novel. The text was informative and personal; the author had really done her homework in providing the reader with the facts. As I read, I was surprised and excited to see that one of the prisoners’s mentioned had a last name of Ochs, which was my maiden name. Being very uncommon, this soldier played a significant role in the camp and I was proud to share his name. I feel now that I need to do some research and find out more about this important man in history. So what did Ochs do? He was ordered to sketch pictures of the prisoners by the major. The major gave these pictures out as presents but little did the major know that Ochs was creating another set of sketches that he kept for himself. By stretching out his drawing time, the prisoner had more time to rest, and this second set of sketches allowed the prisoners to see his own image. Ochs received small tokens for his work from the prisoners also and these are portraits that we see inside this novel. The amount of prisoners held inside the walls fluctuates but the abuse continues daily. To see themselves as a “reception” camp with the amount of humiliation, starvation, beatings and other cruelties that were a part of the daily life there at Breendonk, baffled me. I met some new individuals as I read and there were new images and ideas that I needed to reflect upon, some notions that I hadn’t given much thought to before.

 

I found these matters interesting:

 

The arrest of postal workers: for delivering underground newspaper on their routes, for striking, for holding back mail of the SIPO-SD

In August 1942: there were only 2 gas chambers: both in farmhouses that had been converted by the SS and were at Auschwitz-Birkenau. They were Bunker 1- the “red house” which held 800 individuals in 2 rooms. There is Bunker 2- the “white house” which held 1,200 individuals in 4 rooms.

Transport XX: Finally made the switch to freight cars with sliding doors as the SS believes now they have solved the problem of individuals escaping. New problems have now been created as the resistance will not give up trying to save the prisoners.

 

The novel closes out with war crime trials for those individuals claiming too much power and it showed Breendonk today. This is truly a fabulous novel, I highly recommend it.