The Prisoners of Breendonk

Personal Histories from a World War II Concentration Camp


Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 2015. Available in hardcover and ebook.

Illustrated in color and black-and-white with over 225 photographs, drawings, and maps, including many photos taken exclusively for the book by award-winning Belgian photographer Leon Nolis. 

Excerpt

 

From Chapter One:

The Arrest of Israel Neumann

 

"Israel Neumann was one of the first to be arrested.

"One night in late September or early October, unable to sleep because his stomach was growling from hunger, he left his home at 20 Magdalena Street in Antwerp, Belgium, and went for a walk near the main railway station, intending to buy something to eat. Perhaps he had done this many times before, perhaps he felt safe.

 

Antwerp, Belgium, facing the Central Station

 

"But the year was 1940, and World War II had already begun in Europe. Belgium had been invaded by Germany and was now under the control of a German military administration, the Militärverwaltung. During his outing, Neumann was stopped by the Geheime Feldpolizei, the secret police of the German army, and detained.

"No records of the event were kept; no arrest report was ever filed. The specific date of his arrest is not even known. But there is no doubt that he was taken into custody. His crime, according to one source, was that he had perhaps uttered something—a word, a phrase, a sentence or two—that was interpreted as anti-Nazi. On the other hand, the Geheime Feldpolizei could have arrested him for what they termed a “racial reason.” In other words, Israel Neumann’s crime that night might simply have been that he was a Jew.

 


 

"In 1940, Belgium had an estimated population of some 70,000 Jews, only 4,000 of whom were Belgian citizens. The rest, like Israel Neumann, were immigrants, and many of them were quite poor. Some had arrived in the 1920s, mostly from Poland and other eastern European countries where poor job opportunities and growing anti-Semitism prompted them to leave. Others had emigrated from Germany beginning in 1933, when Adolf Hitler and his National Socialist German Workers’ Party began to institute anti-Jewish laws. Still others had come from Austria in 1938, soon after the country was annexed by Germany in the Anschluss. Finally, another influx of Jewish immigrants from Germany and Austria occurred following the pogrom now called Kristallnacht in November 1938, when Nazis and their sympathizers terrorized the Jews of these two countries.

"Born in Nisko, Poland, Neumann had arrived in Belgium in 1927, but after a very different journey. He and his parents, three sisters, and two brothers had left Poland and had made their way to France, planning to immigrate to the United States, where another son already lived. In January 1921, they sailed on the SS Roussillon from Le Havre to New York, incorrectly listed on the ship’s manifest as the “Neumain” family. At Ellis Island, they were detained, although the reason is unclear. An immigration agent checked a column on the family’s arrival form indicating that Israel Neumann was either “deformed or crippled.” Immigration officers were always on the lookout for individuals who might not be able to support themselves and would require public assistance. Because Neumann was a man who may have had both physical and intellectual disabilities, his entry was at risk. Perhaps because he was accompanied by his family, all were allowed to enter after a short delay.

"In New York, the family settled in Brooklyn where they changed the spelling of their last name to Newman, and at least some of the children assumed Americanized first names: his sister Sima chose Sylvia; his brother Meilech adopted Milton; and Israel became Sam.

"He lived in New York for over four years. For unknown reasons, however, he decided to return to Europe, shortly after July 1, 1925. A little over a year later, in October 1926, he sailed back to New York. Upon arrival, he was placed in the Ellis Island Immigration Hospital for an unspecified illness. After his release nine days later, he was detained and labeled “LPC PH HOLD.” Immigration officials believed that he was unable to support himself (“Likely Public Charge,” or LPC) and that he had some mental or physical challenges (“Physical Health,” or PH). The few existing documents do not reveal whether he was able to reach out to his family in New York City or, if he did, whether they tried to help him.

"On February 4, 1927, after more than three months in detention on Ellis Island, he was deported from the United States to Le Havre, France. In May that same year, he immigrated to Belgium.



 

"Employed first as a waiter and then as a hotel porter, Neumann struggled to earn a living, as did many immigrant Jews in Belgium. Although the Belgian government allowed him to enter the country, he was still an outsider with no easy route to citizenship; becoming a Belgian citizen took considerable time and money, something that many immigrants did not have. Neumann’s jobs did not last long. Eventually, he became a peddler. Licensed only to sell toys, he would hawk anything he could as he walked the streets of Antwerp in order to earn money to support himself and his wife Eleonore Sabathova, but the police were on the lookout for any illegal activity.

"Once he was cited for peddling chocolate to innkeepers along London Street and fined. Another time, he ate lunch at a department store restaurant but could not pay for his meal. When the police were called, he told the responding officer, “I was hungry and had no money. I’ll make sure I pay the bill.” As a punishment, he was fined just over 17 Belgian francs.
But these were minor infractions with minimal fines.

"This time, his arrest would have much more serious consequences.




"After he did not return home on that early-fall night, a concerned Eleonore went to the police to report him missing. She gave them this description: “small size, dark eyes, lightweight overcoat, dark gray hat, striped trousers.”  

"But the Antwerp police could be of little help, because he had simply disappeared with officers of the Geheime Feldpolizei. What Eleonore would learn later was that her husband had been sent to Fort Breendonk, a prison camp established by the Nazis the previous month. Although the exact date of his arrival at Breendonk is no longer known, it was most likely October 4.

"On that day he would have been trucked to Breendonk with a few other prisoners, most likely all Jews. Individual prisoners sometimes arrived in a private car: a Volkswagen, a Citroën, a Mercedes, or even a Buick or a Cadillac, according to some prisoners. However he arrived, the vehicle traveled halfway down the Antwerp-Brussels highway, turned toward the village of Willebroek, drove along a barbed-wire fence that encircled the perimeter of the old fort, and passed through a guarded barrier to a small plaza that also served as a parking lot. There, according to one prisoner, the detainees were “vomited” from the vehicle that delivered them. Although the name Breendonk came from an Old Dutch term meaning “broad marsh,” there was nothing picturesque about the place.

"Surveying the entrance—a tunnel that seemed to form a gaping mouth in the concrete gatehouse of the fort—he would have tried to make sense of where he was. As an immigrant, without much knowledge of Belgian history, he might have never heard of the fort before, but many prisoners taken to Breendonk —even well-educated native Belgians—were unfamiliar with it.

"In the early months of Auffanglager Breendonk, few prisoners would have known that they were about to enter the gateway to hell."

 


Copyright © James M. Deem This excerpt is taken from The Prisoners of Breendonk: Personal Histories from a World War II Concentration Camp (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 2015). All rights reserved.