Internment Camp in Belgium
The camp known as Breendonck was located in the village of Breendonk, about 20 km outside of Mechelen. Built in 1906 the fortress was erected near the junction of the Antwerp – Brussels and Mechelen – Dendermonde roads, as part of a chain of fortifications.
The fortress fell during the German invasion in 1914 and later it became the general Headquarters of the Belgian Army. In May 1940 Breendonck was briefly used as the General Headquarters of King Leopold III, leading the Belgian armed forces.
After Belgium’s surrender to the Germans the fortress was transformed into an internment camp by the Nazis (primarily as a transit camp for transport to Auschwitz). It gained a grim reputation as a place of torture and interrogation of a wide variety of prisoners.
This fortress surrounded by a moat, consists of a building measuring 200 by 300 meters and can still be seen today, as a museum and memorial.The museum is only a part of the entire complex. There are different rooms with displays detailing the Nazi-occupation of Belgium, the SS rule at Breendonk, as well as to the post-war trials of the executors.
In the former showers and kitchen works of art can be seen that was made by the prisoners.
Breendonck as an internment camp
At the end of August 1940 the Germans turned the fortress into a Polizeihaftlager and three weeks later, on 20 September the first group of detainees, numbering twenty persons, mostly “politicals” and Jews of foreign nationality, were brought to the camp.
The camp was under the control of the Sicherheitspolizei (Security Police) and was run by SS men, with Wehrmacht personnel serving as guards. At the end of 1941 they were joined by Belgian SS men. Among the Belgian SS –men were Wijss, De Bodt, and Pellemans, who were renowned for their cruelty.
The physical conditions at Breendonk were among the worst in Western European camps. In addition, the camp commanders subjected the prisoners to terrible cruelty and violence.
During the first year of the Occupation, the Jews made up half the total number of prisoners. From 1942 onwards and the creation of the internment camp at the Dossin barracks where the Jews were assembled before their departure towards the east and the extermination camps, most of the Jews disappeared from Breendonk, which gradually became a camp for political prisoners and members of the Resistance.
The first commandant of the camp was Sturmbannfuhrer Philip Schmitt, who was followed in 1943, by an Austrian Karl Schonwetter.
The officer in charge of forced labour was Untersturmfuhrer Artur Prauss, who had the reputation of being the most cruel person in the camp staff. The camp commandant came directly under the authority of the Security Police chief for Belgium and Northern France, Konstantin Canaris, and then of his successor Ernst Ehlers.
In the initial phase conditions in the camp were reasonably tolerable, and the Jewish prisoners were not separated from the non-Jews. But at the end of 1940 this changed, and the “Aryan” prisoners were put into separate living quarters, although both groups continued to work side by side.
At first the Jews were in the majority, but during 1942 when the deportations from Belgium commenced, their numbers decreased. Almost all the Jews of Belgium were then put into the Jewish transit camp at Mechelen, prior to deportation to Poland and probable death in the extermination camps.
The non-Jewish group consisted mostly of members of the underground, mostly leftist groups, hostages and black market operators. The total number of prisoners incarcerated in the camp is estimated as having ranged from 3,000 to 3,600 of whom seven percent were Jews, but no precise figures are available.
Some 300 persons perished in the camp from torture, harassment and the harsh conditions, 450 were executed by shooting and 14 were hanged. 54 Jews were deported to Auschwitz and of the 165 others, 65 died in the camp.
The Holocaust Education & Archive Research Team
Copyright Carmelo Lisciotto H.E.A.R.T 2011