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. 

Visiting Fort Breendonk National Memorial

 

National Memorial Fort Breendonk is located north of Brussels, just off the Brussels-Antwerp highway (A12/N16) at the exit for Willebroek. You can see the fort as you take the Willebroek exit. Keep bearing to your right to reach the service road that leads to the parking lot.

This sign greets visitors as they approach the parking lot at National Memorial Fort Breendonk.

The camp housed around 3,600 known prisoners during World War II. Over a third died after they were transported to other concentration camps in Germany, Austria, Poland, and the Netherlands. Built between 1909 and 1914, it was surrounded by a moat and covered with tons of sand dug during the excavation of the moat. This sandy covering was intended to camouflage the fort and protect it from artillery shells during an attack. Prisoners incarcerated there during World War II were forced to remove the sand, as part of their meaningless duties.

Vistors can tour the entire fort complex, including the former barracks and workshops. Exhibits provide information about many of the prisoners and their Nazi tormentors. An audio guide is available. For further information about the camp, including fees and visiting hours, you can check the memorial's website.

Left: fort covered with sand (prior to WW2); Right: fort after it was uncovered by WW2 prisoners

 

You can also reach the memorial by train. From Ghent or Mechelen, you can take a train to Willebroek for a few euros and then walk to the fort. This map shows the route from the Station Willebroek to Fort Breendonk National Memorial:

There's almost no commerce around the Willebroek station. But if you are hungry, there is an excellent bakery in the first block going south from the station (on the right).

If you visit Fort Breendonk, you should also plan to visit Kazerne Dossin in nearby Mechelen. This former military barracks was the site the of the transit camp for Belgium (SS-Sammellager Mecheln). In all, 25,031 Jews and 351 Roma were deported from Kazerne Dossin to Auschwitz-Birkenau; most were sent directly to the gas chamber; only 1,217 Jews and 32 Roma survived at the end of the war. The exhibits include the Albertine De Houwer's doll, made by her mother before she was transported to Auschwitz-Birkenau and murdered. The story of Albertine's mother, Charlotte Hamburger, is related in my book in Chapters 22 and 23. Albertine's father, Louis De Houwer, was one of the first prisoners executed at Breendonk; his story is told in Chapter 25.

From Breendonk, take the N16 to Mechelen, about nine miles.

It is also easy enough to walk to Kazerne Dossin, if you take the train to the main Mechelen Station; the distance is about two kilometers.