Today marks the lunar new year of the ox and out of habit I celebrate by taking some time off to do at least one thing I’ve never done before. The general superstition is that whatever you do on this day will set the pattern for the rest of the year; hence, people refrain from conducting business and instead opt for eating out, spending time with family, and wearing something new. I head out for the Nazi prison camp of Fort Breendonk in Belgium.
It is appropriately bitingly cold today when I enter the grounds of this fortress:
Built in 1906 as fortification for the port city of Antwerp, it was occupied by the Nazis from 1940-1944 and used as a prison camp.
In total 185 prisoners were executed and many others were then transported to other concentration camps. Here was where spirits and the will to think independently were broken.
There are no gas chambers here but there are enough torture chambers, prison cells, and hanging gallows to forever witness the crime against humanity that took place all across Europe.
It is untold how many were tortured. Many literally dropped dead from starvation, tremendous physical abuse, and a host of physical ailments from hard labor and lack of warm clothing and medicine.
Fort Breendonk is one of the smaller, more well preserved camps. The audio narrative tells of the hell of living in constant bone chilling dampness, moldiness, unsanitary conditions, and, worst of all, the incessant feeling of hunger–the kind that makes you lose your sanity, your last signs of being human. One survivor compared prisoners to dogs trained to kill by withholding their food for a week. The way these dogs tore into each other over a bone was much the same way these prisoners would fight each other for a crust of bread.
In another interview with a former prisoner, a man said the SS guards named the dogs, horses, and even pigs that were kept at Breendonk, but the prisoners were only identified by numbers as they were treated as subhuman, less than an animal. I think about the year of the ox and find it fitting to be at Breendonk today, where prisoners were used as beasts of burden. Of ox and men.
The prison, now a museum, is kept deliberately unheated. As I walk from room to room, watching the videos of survivors, hearing about the atrocities that took place, seeing pictures taken of the SS guards and their prisoners, I become numb physically from the cold and emotionally vacant from processing the ugliness of it all. The chill that stays with me the entire 2.5 hours of the tour does not go away. First I lose sensation in my toes, then my fingers start to ache under my gloves, and then the ringing starts up between my ears. And I’m bundled up in 3 layers of clothing from head to toe. I cannot imagine how any of the prisoners could have survived the daily roll call out in the yard in nothing more than a flimsy prison uniform, only to follow that with a long day of hard labor and miniscule food rations.
Imagine a maddening existence, day after day, on these grounds:
At the end of the tour, I am directed inside a warm room dedicated to all of the concentration camps. Names of prisoners are inscribed on the walls. Finally, there is a brief video remembering not only these camps but also the countries where genocides and war crimes have taken/are taking place or human rights have been trespassed. Vietnam is one of those named. I catch myself getting misty-eyed in the dark room.
I’d checked out mentally to absorb all the violence in the tour, and as my feet and hands start to thaw when I walk out of the prison gate, I feel profoundly grateful to be alive. And human again. I wonder if the survivors who were lucky enough to walk out of this gate as I do now ever got their humanity back.
After this tour I go back to Antwerp where I get to share some surprisingly great dim sum in Chinatown with a friend to celebrate the new year. We talk about the starvation that happened at Breendonk and the chill returns, running down my spine. It’s been a day of mixed emotions. Glad to be a human wandering around in this great, big, diverse planet, and sad to see how far humanity can be deconstructed.
Hopefully tomorrow I will have time to blog on a more upbeat note about one of my favorite cities, Antwerpen.