In August 1940, three months after the German army had invaded Belgium, Fort Breendonk, a fortification built to protect the port city of Antwerp prior to World War I, was turned into an Auffanglager…a Nazi euphemism which meant “reception camp.”
The first prisoners arrived September 20, 1940. In all, from September 1940 through August 1944, approximately 3,600 prisoners were registered at the camp. Historians believe that there may have been another 200 or so prisoners who were not registered.
The Prisoners of Breendonk: Personal Histories from a World War II Concentration Camp discusses 80 of these prisoners in varying degrees of detail in the book. They include:
A Polish Jew, Neumann was one of the first prisoners at Breendonk. Although he immigrated to Belgium in 1927, he had lived in Brooklyn, New York from 1921-1925 with his family after their emigration from Poland. Most likely physically and intellectually challenged, Neumann was abused and murdered at Breendonk.
Director of the Fine Arts Academy in Liege, Ochs was arrested for a satirical magazine illustration of Hitler. During his stay at Breendonk, he was ordered by the camp commandant to draw portraits of the prisoners so that they could be given as gifts to friends and family. Many of his drawings are included in the book.
A Brussels lawyer and poet who was active in the early stages of the Belgian resistance movement, Blieck was responsible for editing and circulating a number of underground newspapers before he was arrested. Among the first prisoners tranported from Breendonk to Neuengamme Concentration Camp, Blieck survived until the very end of the war.
A journalist from Vienna who had fled to Belgium after Kristallnacht, Landau was arrested for helping to prepare flyers for the resistance movement. He survived the war, although he was transported to multiple camps.
Louis De Houwer
A member of the resistance, De Houwer may have collected arms and ammunition and participated in a number of attacks against the German occupier. When the SIPO-SD (the Belgian version of the Gestapo) showed up one day to arrest him, he went into hiding. The SIPO-SD took his Jewish wife, Charlotte Hamburger, into custody instead. De Houwer was arrested over a year later and sent to Breendonk; by that time, his wife had been murdered at Auschwitz-Birkenau.
Of the 3,600 prisoners, 1,741 did not survive. Most died after they were transported to other camps.
At Breendonk, there were 303 known deaths (157 executions by firing squad, 26 executions by hanging, and 120 murders from abuse or starvation). Elsewhere, there were 1,438 known deaths (54 executions at other sites in Belgium, and 1,384 deaths from abuse, starvation, or execution after being transported to other camps or prisons).