Saturday, April 14, 2012

Concentration Camps in Belgium

Belgium has not been spared the horror of Nazism and its concentration camps ~ Breendonk Memorial

I studied World War II in school as most of us did and I have a great-uncle who fought in the war in France and Belgium, but he never shared his experiences and other then a few words over the years, I never learned about his time in the war.  I had read about concentration camps and the horrors that occurred within their walls and barbed wire confines and like many of us, I could never comprehend the reality of what had taken place in Europe during the 1940’s. 

Tom is a WWII history buff and during our travels through Belgium we made the decision to stop and visit the Breendonk Concentration Camp memorial site near Brussels.  Although smaller than most concentration camps at the time, Breendonk was one of the most barbaric and vilest in Nazi control.  Between September 1940 and September 1944, 3500 prisoners passed through its narrow, damp and humid halls.  The prisoners were Jews, Non-Jews, and those who the Nazis felt were threats to their regime.  All prisoners confined within Breendonk's walls were treated inhumanely, with daily torture and beatings. 

It was a gray and damp day when we pulled up to the fence and there was only one other car in the parking lot.  We stared at the foreboding building and the rolls of razor wire that still wrapped around its walls.  I shivered at the sight – it was sobering and intimidating.  I was choosing to visit this place, stepping into the building of my own free will – I could not imagine how horrific it must have been for the prisoners that were transported here against their will, never knowing if they would ever be free again. 

We entered the main building and picked up the audio headsets for the self-guided tour from the gentleman on duty and as we began to navigate deeper into the cold corridors of the prison, I could feel a very heavy spirit began to envelope me.  The prison was dark, cold and damp and this was only September – I could not imagine how horrible it must have been during the middle of winter.  Prisoners spent their days in thin and tattered clothing, working outside even in bad weather or sitting in solitary confinement with the daily threat of beatings and torture hanging over them.  Illness and disease was rampant in this environment and as we moved through the prison our mood became increasingly more somber and reflective.

Railroad cattle cars used to transport prisoners were on display in one corner of the fenced prison yard.  As we peered in, Tom made the observation of how small they were and the pictures on the side of the cars showed them packed with people, all staring grimly into the camera.  Riding in these cars must have been very claustrophobic and terrifying.  Just prior to the liberation of Breendonk, these same cars were used to transport the remaining prisoners to Auschwitz - likely their final ride in this life.  I imagined myself inside one of those cars and I felt an instant moment of panic and fear.

I hesitated to enter the torture chamber as we approached it on the tour.  I could almost feel the spirits of those who had been beaten and tortured here – the air was heavy and cold and my breath was becoming short and shallow as I began to listen to the stories of the chamber.  I jumped – a woman’s piercing scream came through my audio tour speakers, followed by the story of how many people – men and women – had lost their lives in this chamber. 

I shuddered and turned my head away from the torture contraptions that were still present in this room.  A single glaring light bulb hung suspended from the ceiling, casting shadows on the stone walls as it illuminated the chamber where many had suffered for their crimes, whether real or imagined.  The story of the tortured woman continued in my headset, describing what had happened to her within this chamber and providing details that I did not want to hear and could not comprehend.  Tears filled my eyes as I listened to her retell the story of her time and torture in Breendonk, all in her softly accented voice.  I could not imagine what she must have been feeling.  She had managed to survive the horrors of this camp and willingly shared her stories with those that visited, ensuring that we would remember the catastrophic happenings of World War II and Breendonk.

As I looked at the rest of my group I could see that they were as impacted as I was, listening to the same story through their own audio headsets.  Our faces were grim and pale, we had tears in our eyes and were wiping at them freely with our tissues.  I had to leave – I wanted to leave – but I couldn’t leave.  I needed to listen and hear this.  I needed to understand the horrors that had taken place in our history and I needed to remember that many innocent people died during this time in our past.  When the story ended, we silently left the chamber and moved down the hallway to the next stop on our self-guided tour.  No one said a word, for what could we say?  Each of us was thinking about the information we had just learned and processing it in our own minds. 

We finished the tour, returned the audio headsets and silently walked back to the car.  Travel is important for so many reasons.  Not only do we have the opportunity to see the world, meet other people and learn about their lives, we also have the obligation to consider the history of the region we visit and understand the circumstances that have helped to shape its citizens. 

The people of Belgium have converted Breendonk into a memorial site.  Not because they are proud of Breendonk and the horrific acts that took place there, but so that others might have the opportunity to visit and remember the horrors that took lives and destroyed families.  It is by remembering and learning from the mistakes of the past that we progress forward as humans, ideally learning from the experience and refraining from repeating such acts in our future. 

Travel Tip:  Research the memorials and museums in the areas you visit, and plan to stop in and learn about the history of the region on your trip.  Even a short visit to a local memorial site can help you gain a greater appreciation and insight into the events that contributed to the development of the area.

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