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

 

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

 

National Memorial Fort Breendonk is located north of Brussels, just off the Brussels-Antwerp highway (A12/N16) at the exit for Willebroek. If you drive, you can see the fort as you take the Willebroek exit. Look for the service road that leads to the parking lot (and a cafe). You can also take the train from Brussels or Antwerp, though this will involve a change of trains in Mechelen/Malines and a 20-minute walk from the station in Willebroek. I took this route frequently as I worked on my book.

This map shows the route from the Station Willebroek to Fort Breendonk National Memorial:

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.

 

 

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.