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. 

Reviews

 

Professional Publications

Bookliststarred review (April 1, 2015) 

"Though never officially designated a concentration camp, the Belgian fortress of Breendonk was equally brutal while occupied by the Nazis during World War II. Writes Deem: “three principles guided the treatment of prisoners: starve them, overwork them, and beat them often.” The many stories he recounts of the camp’s prisoners bear grim evidence of those horrors. By personalizing their experiences, Deem brings to vivid life the Kafkaesque realities of camp existence. Prisoners, who were seldom told why they’d been arrested, were rarely tried for a crime and almost never given specific sentences to serve. Though Jews and “Aryans” alike were incarcerated, all were subject to a mind-numbing routine of back-breaking labor and random, unpredictable beatings. Perhaps worst of all was the threat of starvation, the reason Breendonk was called by some prisoners, “the camp of the creeping death.” Just over half survived this treatment, and many of the Jewish prisoners who did were sent to Auschwitz to be killed. Deem has done remarkable research, gathering not only facts but also photographs of the prisoners, humanizing those whose dignity was stripped from them in the camp. A sobering study of man’s inhumanity to man, and an important book that demands serious consideration and discussion." (Michael Cart)

 

School Library Journalstarred review (October, 2015) 

"This title sheds light on the Nazi prison camp Breendonk. Never designated as a concentration camp, Breendonk (an old fort intended to defend Antwerp, Belgium, in World War I) was referred to as a “reception” camp. Regardless of its title, Breendonk held about 3,600 prisoners between 1940 and 1945. Jews, communists, common criminals, and freedom fighters all found themselves subject to incarceration. Life in Breendonk was no different than that in any of the better-known camps. It served as a 'feeder' to Mauthausen, Buchenwald, Sachsenhausen, and several other camps. This narrative is told through the lives of various prisoners who lived (and died) there. Liberally illustrated with black-and-white photographs of the camp, its officials, and the prisoners, the book is well written and well organized. Many drawings done by one of the prisoners are also included, and captions add to the content. An afterword concludes the stories of some of the prisoners. VERDICT The overall quality of this volume makes this title about a little-known camp a strong choice." (Eldon Younce, Anthony Public Library, KS)

 

Jewish Book Councilstarred review (October, 2015) 

"An album of Nazi evil, this is a well-illustrated book with photos and drawings and stories of many inmates from the start of their incarceration to its end. One prisoner, after having spent so much time in Breendonk, was relieved to reach Buchenwald. Some prisoners were brave and noble; others were pitiful and suffering, but among them was one man, a Jew named Walter Obler, who as a guard, a Zugführer, developed a reputation for extreme cruelty. He was punished along with the Nazis at the end of the war. This is a plain-spoken, well described and documented narrative with plentiful photographs and maps, including portrait sketches by a prisoner, Jacques Ochs." (Marcia Weiss Posner)

 

Bulletin of the Center of Children's Books (December 2015)

"Breendonk, just outside of Antwerp in Belgium, was one of the smaller and lesser-known concentration camps, but the experiences of those who lived and died there are no less tragic for that. Deem traces the camp through many of its inhabitants, describing with meticulous care Breendonk’s emergence as a repository for Belgian Jews, for refugee Jews fleeing Germany, and for troublesome or Nazi-unfriendly Belgians; as the war went on, the camp also became a way station for prisoners who were than transported east en masse to concentration camps such as Mauthausen or Auschwitz-Birkenau. While this is not the oral history the subtitle might suggest, the book keeps individuals at the fore, describing their families and origins, resisting the dehumanization the camp demanded while still telling heartbreaking tales of torture, atrocities, and murder. The thoroughness here is an act of testimony and also a recognition of complexities—that Jewish Zugführers, heads of the barracks rooms, tortured and abused other Jews, that gentile resistance fighters were sometimes also anti-Semites, that some thieves were heroes—and Deem follows those who figure large in the Breendonk story to the sometimes savagely bitter end, chronicling the destinies of transports carrying Breendonk prisoners. The result is startlingly illuminating: the relevant factors and factions are all clearly laid out in context, and the tight focus on Breendonk means the horror remains at a comprehensible scale while still being part of a cataclysmic larger whole. Additional information is plentiful and well placed, with a glossary up front and maps throughout, while period images from an imprisoned artist, Nazi photographs, and other sources interweave with contemporary black and white photography. An afterword listing the fates of many prisoners and their families, source notes, a detailed bibliography and list of archival materials, and an index are included." (Deborah Stevenson)

 

Children's Literature

"During World War II the Nazis established hundreds of concentration camps. Some of these facilities were specifically organized as death camps and their names inclusive of Auschwitz, Treblinka, Sobibor, and Majdanek remain as shameful reminders of the Holocaust. Other camps, while smaller in size and less systematic in their brutality, remain relatively unknown to even scholars of the war. One of these terrible but generally unknown camps was Breendonk located in Belgium. Originally constructed prior to World War I as part of the Belgium national defense system, Breendonk was the home to terrible cruelty, torture, and despair. Over the course of the war hundreds of inmates were imprisoned in Breendonk where they were brutalized by SS commanders, German soldiers, and even other prisoners who were given responsibility by the Nazis for disciplining fellow inmates. While there were political prisoners, members of the Belgium underground, and common criminals incarcerated at Breendonk, the vast majority of its inmates were Jews. These innocent people had committed no wrongdoing save for being Jewish at a time when that fact was a crime in the eyes of the Nazis. In The Prisoners of Breendonk author James M. Deem looks back at the history and human cost affiliated with this dreadful place. By using the stories of individual prisoners Deem brings to life not only the factual events that occurred at Breendonk but also the way they directly impacted upon men and women caught up in them. Deem also includes numerous photographs taken bought during the war and in more recent times during which Breendonk has been transformed into a Holocaust museum. Deem also incorporates the several dozen drawings one of the inmates completed during his stay at Breendonk to illustrate the dreadful nature of existence in that prison. This is not a book for either the faint of heart or younger, more sensitive readers. Nazi brutality included horrible cruelty, torture, and brutal murder. All of those components are starkly presented in this insightful and moving historical study." (Greg M. Romaneck)

 

Horn Book Magazine (May/June, 2015)

"When the Nazis invaded Belgium, they turned Breendonk, an old WWI fort, into a “reception” camp, a place to hold prisoners until their release or transport to other camps.Deem tells a chronological history of Breendonk by weaving together dozens of personal histories, illustrated by black-and-white period photographs, full-color contemporary photographs, and archival sketches by Jacques Ochs, whose job it was to draw portraits and caricatures of his fellow inmates. All of these touches, coupled with the smaller scale of the topic—the camp never housed more than 660 prisoners at a time—give this chronicle an intimate feel, underscoring the inhumanity that so many suffered. When British soldiers arrived at Breendonk, there were no prisoners to liberate; they had all been sent on to other camps. For many, Breendonk had been only the beginning, and by following a handful of prisoners to their various ends, Deem illustrates that each story had a unique trajectory. An afterword, two appendices, source notes, a bibliography, and an index complete the book."

 

VOYA (August, 2015)

"In Holocaust literature and film, little is mentioned of Breendonk, a fortress originally built to protect the Belgian city of Antwerp from German invasion in WWI and which later became an unofficial Nazi concentration camp where countless horrors took place. Author Deem provides a thorough history of Breendonk, offering prisoner accounts, artwork, official records, maps, and both archival and current day photographs. Though it was not an extermination camp, conditions at Breendonk were brutal:  prisoners experienced overcrowding, illness, and regular, sometimes fatal, abuse at the hands of the Nazis. Of the 3,590 registered prisoners who passed through Breendonk, nearly half died, most after being transported to other camps.

"Deem’s unflinching look at the prisoner experience at Breendonk, including some descriptions of torture and executions, may be difficult to stomach at times but gives voice to Breendonk’s victims, which included Jews, communists, resistors, and petty criminals. Readers will appreciate the author’s attention to detail, especially information pertaining to the fate of certain prisoners and guards after liberation. This title is a solid nonfiction addition to any high school Holocaust collection." (Cathy Fiebelkorn)

 

Arizona Daily Star (August 7, 2016)

"Two strengths of this history of a World War II Belgian concentration camp are its neutral tone and statistical, factual presentation: Just as the early Nazi identification and deceptive “relocation” of Jews were slowly revealed to be mass extermination, James M. Deem’s account, which opens with one Antwerp Jew being picked up off the street and delivered by car to Fort Breendonk, it gradually reveals its horrors. Breendonk, a fort built in the early 1900s to protect Belgium from Germany, was turned into a camp for prisoners to be transferred or released, in 1940. As innocuous as that sounds, its conditions were inhumane (underlying principles being “starve them, overwork them, and beat them ....”), and only 10 percent of its prisoners would survive.

"Deem chronicles the lives of many Breendonk inmates, and by the end, when he reports on the outcomes (and those of their families and children, many sent directly to the extermination camps), the magnitude of the abuse and loss of life is staggering.

"Deem includes period photographs of inmates and guards and administrators, copies of identification cards and personal portraits, sketches of individuals drawn by a prisoner (portraits were assigned by an SS officer to be given away as gifts; the prisoner-artist made duplicates, which he managed to smuggle out), and scenes of the contemporary site—now a museum. 'The Prisoners of Breendonk' will be a valuable contribution to Holocaust literature." (Christine Wald-Hopkins)

 

Blogs

The Avid Reader--Books, Books, Books!

"The more I read about the Holocaust, the less I know. There are piles of books in my library, fiction and non—they all point me to the forgotten moments, the unseen suffering, the unnamed heroes. And so it goes with the book THE PRISONERS OF BREENDONK: a passionate book thoroughly researched, strongly written.

"I feel hidden from the world. My grandfather, my heritage, comes from Belgium, yet I have never heard of this concentration camp just north of Brussels, guarding the south borders of Antwerp. Here, though not considered by the SS as a concentration camp, 303 of the 3,590 known prisoner died under abuse, starvation, or execution. There were no gas chambers here: it was death by brutality. 1,741 of those prisoners were later transported to other camps, to their eventual deaths.

"The combination of written word, paired with pictures throughout, offers a staggering perspective. I’ve learned so many stories, how Belgians, both citizens and those retreating from other countries, both Jew and even non-Jew jailed from previously hating the German regime—all suffered. The book builds in narrative, highlighting personal stories, group travesty, and the overall history of Breendonk. The author, James M Deem, begins with the story of Israel Neumann, who once came through Ellis Island, residing in America, returned to Belgium, to his personal hell. The story concludes with the eventual liberation and the current standing of Breendonk today.

"This is not the story you’ve heard or seen about other concentration camps, but it is equally as powerful. The conversations and events have been carefully reconstructed through written documents, family history, court cases, and the author’s many trips to Breendonk itself. If you are at all interested in learning more: this book will stick with you for a long, long time."

 

Teacher Librarians: Bridging Theory and Practice

"THE PRISONERS OF BREENDONK by James M. Deem tells the compelling, personal stories associated with a lesser-known concentration camp during World War II.

"Located in Belgium, the internment camp held both Jewish and non-Jewish prisoners who were political dissidents or accused of resistance activities. Occupied from 1940 through 1944, it was also used as a transit camp for Jews on their way to death camps in Germany and Poland. The prisoners were subjected to forced labor and lived under the constant threat of starvation, interrogation, and torture.

"Following the chronology of World War II, Deem’s work of nonfiction provides a comprehensive examination of the camp and it’s inhabitants. Told through short narratives that weave in background information and personal histories, Deem brings the poor, over-crowded conditions to life for young adult readers.

"Designed for young adults, this well-researched work contains an afterward and information source sections in addition to the body of text. Of particular note are the many high-quality illustrations including maps, signs, photographs, and drawings. The author also describes why so many photos and sketches are available from this camp.

"Librarians will find this outstanding work of nonfiction to be an excellent addition to the history section of the library. Its focus on this brutal, but lesser-known camp will be particularly appealing for YA researchers already familiar with Nazi-German concentration camps."