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IJC Visit to Breendonk


Report by Imke Roebken--- More than 20 IJC members and guests met in early April in Breendonk for a guided visit of this Belgian national memorial.

 

Breendonk is a former military installation which served as a Nazi prison camp during the German occupation of Belgium in World War II. In total, between 3,500 and 3,600 prisoners were incarcerated there of whom at least 1,733 died before liberation. Most did not die in Breendonk but in other camps they were deported too. Nevertheless, at least 300 prisoners were murdered in the camp through executions (207), torture or died due to the harsh conditions.


In the beginning of the Occupation, Jews were also arrested because of political and/or black-market activities or problems with papers and were brought to Breendonk. Jewish prisoners were segregated. After 1942, they were mostly brought directly to Kazerne Dossin.

We learned about the tragic fate of prisoner number 22, Israel Neumann (1900 - 24 Juli 1941). He had fled with his family to the US, but returned for unknown reasons to Belgium. When he arrived for the second time in Ellis Island outside New York he was sent back and later was arrested in Antwerp and died in Breendonk.


More information about him can be found at https://jamesmdeem.com/books.breendonk.prisoners.neumann.html



Israel Neumann before and after this arrest and with  Abraham Feldberg carrying “soup”. They are wearing the old Belgian uniforms the Germans had found in Breendonk and used for the prisoners.


Our guide emphasized that Breendonk was a truly horrific camp. With maximum 600-700 inmates at one time it was small compared to most concentration and extermination camps, but the daily life of the prisoners was very hard. As the camp was so small, prisoners were constantly observed and harassed and had hardly a second to themselves from 4:30/5:30am to 9pm. Hard and - most of the time - useless labour had to be carried out under very strict surveillance. Often prisoners were not left in peace at night either as they heard sounds from the torture chamber.


The camp was ruled by German and Flemish SS while German soldiers controlled the periphery of the camp. The camp commander until November 1943 was SS Officer Philipp Schmitt from Bavaria. Due to corruption and black marketeering – but also because of alcoholism - he was eventually replaced by SSer Karl Schönwetter. Philipp Schmidt was denounced after the war by former Breendonk inmate Paul Levy. He was tried in Antwerp and the last person to be executed in Belgium.


Faced with the Allied advance, Breendonk was completely evacuated on May 6, 1944. Shortly thereafter, a number of resistance fighters were again imprisoned in the camp. The day after the departure of the last convoy on Aug. 30, 1944, the guards disbanded. The British liberators, led by the German-born Charles Arnold-Baker, found an empty camp on Sept. 4, 1944.


Our guide told us about the many school classes who visit the site. As education about the Shoah is not obligatory any longer in Flemish schools, she often meets schoolchildren where one class knows some of the history, while others do not. It all depends on the teacher. 

While a guided tour can not offer insights into every aspect of the camp’s history, most of us felt that we got a good introduction and that those who had been there before learnt something new. Our guide definitely gave us a lot of her time and refused a tip as she feels strongly about the place and its history. 


‘One always feels very sad and upset in a place like Breendonk, but it is different to be there with an IJC group where you know that your companions feel similarly about the camp and its inmates in so many ways,’ concludes Imke.

 

 



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