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. 

Photographs and Drawings

 

The Prisoners of Breendonk: Personal Histories from a World War II Concentration Camp contains over 225 photographs and drawings. Here are the main sources:

 

Belgian photographer Leon Nolis

Leon Nolis, an award-winning photographer who lives near Antwerp, provided the largest single group of photos for the book. When he was young, Nolis was told that his grandfather had been interrogated at Breendonk during World War II for suspected resistance activities. For this reason, Nolis was drawn to photograph Breendonk. I saw some of these photographs posted online and wrote to ask if they might be available for use in the book. This led to a meeting of the two of us under the clock at the Antwerp Central Station. Over the course of two years, Nolis photographed Breendonk and other related sites. He was given complete access to the memorial, so that he could photograph all aspects of the former camp. His striking and haunting work can be seen throughout the book.

Here are the first photos of Breendonk taken by Leon Nolis that I first saw online. And here are some of the photos that were used in the final book. You can visit Leon Nolis's website here.

Leon Nolis and James Deem

 

National Archives of Belgium

The next largest group of photographs found in the book was taken from the files of the Aliens' Police, housed in the National Archives of Belgium. These files contained immigration records and police documents for many residents of Belgium before and during World War II and include photographs from immigration applications and identity cards. Many of these individuals were arrested by German military police and incarcerated at Breendonk. Their photos appear throughout the book; some also appear on the cover (as shown below).

 

Otto Kropf Photographs

The third largest group of photographs was taken by Otto Kropf, a propaganda photographer for the SS during World War II. Assigned to document the invasion and occupation of Belgium, Kropf was asked by the commandant of Brendonk, Philipp Schmitt, to photograph the camp, an unusual request. On June 13, Kropf took a series of twenty-two photos (and fifteen more on an unknown later date). These comprise the only known images of the camp taken during World War II. Nineteen of the photos appear in the book. Another book, entitled Breendonk: Les Debuts (published in Belgium in French) contains all thirty-seven photographs.

These photos were an attempt by the Nazis to depict the "excellent conditions" at Breendonk. Most of the photos were clearly staged; the ones that weren't allow a careful observer to notice that the prisoners were abused and mistreated.

 

Jacques Ochs Drawings

The majority of the drawings in the book were done by artist Jacques Ochs while he was a prisoner at Breendonk. Ordered by the commandant Philipp Schmitt to draw prisoners as part of his labor at the camp, Ochs produced a series of portraits of the prisoners and scenes of Breendonk life.

When he completed a drawing, he was supposed to turn it in, so that Commandant Schmitt could give it as a present to his friends. Ochs, however, surreptitiously made a duplicate drawing of the original, saving and hiding the first drawing for himself and handing over the duplicate. With the help on an unknown SS guard, he was eventually able to smuggle out his drawings and sketch book after his release from the camp in February 1942.

Some of the drawings provide the final glimpse of prisoners who were murdered at the camp or at other camps after their transport.