Fort de Breendonk, German Atrocities in Belgium (WW-2)

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Flemish Nazi SS guard now himself a prisoner in Breendonk after Allied forces overran the notorious concentration camp. Location : Breendonk, Belgium, Date taken : September 1944 (Note from Snafu : This could be SS Fernand Wijss but I don’t know)

Note Caserne Dossin
On July 15 1942, SS Sturmbannführer Philipp Schmitt, who had been a member of the Nazi party since 1925, was made responsible for the organisation of the Dossin Barracks as a transit camp for Jews. Schmitt was also the commander of the concentration camp in Breendonk. He built up such a brutal reputation that General Von Falkenhausen, the military commander of Belgium and Northern France, was concerned about the idea that Breendonk would go into history has the Hell of Breendonk. Terror and violence were the preferred weapons of Schmitt. He also proved this in Mechelen, with the help of experienced SS guards.
Ten German SS were in charge of the Caserne Dossin. They were reinforced by members of the Flemish SS. Until December 1942, the outside surveillance was carried out by the Wehrmacht, after which a company of Flemish SS were made available to the camp commander. About sixty Germans and Belgians therefore sufficed to keep the camp under control.

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Appendix E
Statement made by Paul Levy Regarding Conditions in Breendonk
(Note : This statement is an EXACT copy of the original statement which is written in English).

I was brought to Breendonk on Nov 29 1940 coming from the prison of Saint-Gilles, Brussels. As I had neither been tried nor even warned, I wondered about this transfer; the Gestapo-feldwebel in charge answered that it had been decided to keep me in Schutzhaft (protective custody) for the duration of the war.

There were at the time about sixty prisoners in Breendonk : ten of them were Polish and Lithuanian Jews condemned by Belgian judges before the war and brought from Merxplan to Breendonk by the Germans apparently to create a right ‘convict mood’ in the new camp; twenty other Jews of various nationalities (including Germans but no Belgians) and thirty non-Jewish people (mostly Belgian black marketeers plus one German and one Belgian communist).

I was beaten during my first day by sentries (rifles), by the SS Lieutenant Prauss (bare hands and feet) and to my great amazement by a fellow prisoner (Obler, the head of my room). The opportunities for being beaten were in the first place ‘not working as ordered’ (barrows not full enough, going too slow, etc.) or ‘answering senior people when addressed’ or ‘not falling in with the quickness and discipline ordered’, etc. Further, I was insulted when at work by the officers and men who took as a general theme for their speeches. It is easier to get the Belgian people excited by our paratroops and to have them killed by others with criminal radio speeches than to fight decently on a battlefield. I had to attend a so-called medical examination by a German Army Doctor who declared me fit at a glance.

The general regime at the time was hard. Here is the time table of the camp during the first months :

  • 6.0 a.m. stand up; washing; dressing; making of beds; cleaning of rooms; preparing for breakfast
  • 7.0 am breakfast
  • 7.30 P.T.
  • 7.50 Fall in; work given out
  • 8 to 12 Work; removing earth from inside to create courtyards and bringing it outside to build a wall round the fortress
  • 12.30 Lunch
  • 13 to 18 Work as in the morning, cleaning of tools and uniforms falling in and roll call
  • 19.00 Supper
  • The menu was :

  • Breakfast : Four ounces bread; two cups ersatz coffee (grilled acorns)
  • Lunch : Two plates soup (with beans, onions, potatoes, very few minced meat) (Beginning on Sunday (in 1940 only) lunch with a small piece of meat and vegetables)
  • Supper : Same as breakfast
  • Parcels allowed in 1940 once a week

As work was hard and under the constant strain of surveyors (soldier, SS and heads of rooms) the prisoners were in a poor physical condition. Since food was really deficient in comparison to the labor involved they lost weight, got small blisters, bleeding gums cold feet (remaining cold during months), ‘unsensible’ toes and fingers, swollen hands and feet in the evening, swollen faces in the morning. This general bad condition went worse and worse and was practically at its worst in Spring and Summer 1941 when the camp was overcrowded (patriots, communists, and Russians) and when the outside parcels were wholly suppressed. In March 1941, I wrote in a clandestine letter : ‘Here the regime is growing worse and worse. There is a real rain of punishments. Today, precisely at the time when I saw you on the road a prisoner 63 years old was beaten to death..’ That was really the first death of the camp (a German called Nathan).

After months (more than five months) of suppression of outside parcels, the prisoners were allowed on Sept 9 1941 to write home asking for a parcel including ‘two shirts, two pants, two pairs of socks and four apples’.

This regime produced not only a permanent morbid state but turned prisoners to ‘footmad people’ : they grew really manic about food, some of them kissing and keeping food from home until it was rotten while they were starving, other ones studying during days the way of eating a cake before actually cutting it, still other ones cutting their bread rations in very thin slices or in tiny little cubits, etc. One of the most amazing and demonstrative cases was the case of a young German Jew (Edgar Hirsch – 19 years old) who after six months in Breendonk was brought back to St Gilles prison to carry out a fortnight solitary confinement he was condemned for coffee black marketing; being brought back to Breendonk after three weeks absence, we realized that he got fat in jail although the food there was not at all first class, far from that.

Very often the officers imposed collective punishments : when a prisoner had escaped, or when too many people were found getting grass or leaves to eat or when the amount of work done was supposed to be insufficient. These collective punishments were for example : working on Sunday, running and going up and down, lying flat and standing up at whistle, working through the whole day without eating before night. Individual punishments were the different varieties of arrests (combinations of work and eating and sleeping in a cell), standing before the wall (the nose two inches from the wall) at attention and fingers straightened out.

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Some of the sentries took opportunity of the fact that the prisoners had to ask for permission of attending personal needs in a prescribed form (standing at attention, cap in right hand, three yards from the sentry and with prescribed words – Sir sentry, I ask you most respectfully to be allowed to go out for a while – not to answer or to refuse to grant that permission; as the prisoners were awfully weak that meant a new kind of an ordeal.

One of the favorite collective of personal punishments was performing P.T. with straightened out arms having heavy tools (pickaxes or shovel in the hands). An other one was ‘race on the belly’ with guards whistling, yelling, and running all around the punished people.

As I told you before the first prisoner who ever died in Breendonk was beaten to death, other ones committed suicide (one by hanging, one drowned, one by jumping from the roof where he was working), one was shot by mistake by a drunken sentry but his corpse was used to impress the other prisoners as having tried to escape, but most of the people who died were actually exhausted (some grew mad) and no accurate figure can possibly be given since they died in the infirmary (not created before March 1941) in the Hospital at Antwerp or in the military hospital – Brussels.

Jews and Aryans were grouped in different sections first in Dec 1940. In August-September 1941, two different infirmaries were created, but the Jewish prisoner Dr. Adolf Singer remained in charge of both.

About special cases of ordeal, I saw the following ones : A young Flemish worker guilty of stealing a German Army motor car (apparently), tried to steal the pistol of an NCO. He was beaten successively by the SS Officers and NCOs, by the army NCOs, by the soldiers, by some of the German Jewish heads of rooms. One of the last ones claimed to have washed his bleeding face with vinegar. We had to parade before the practically unconscious man, standing at attention before the wall on which he was beaten.

Four Kilos potatoes having been stolen by people of room 4 while they were peeling them, the whole room (thirty-two prisoners at the time) was condemned to perform PT without eating during a whole Sunday from 8 a.m. to 8 p.m.)

One of the prisoners being very week and having caught a cold asked to remain lying in the morning (at the time no infirmary existed). He remained in his bed up to the roll call when the lieutenant growing furious got him out half-dressed in the courtyard and threw cold water on him to ‘get him up’. The prisoner (N. 64) died a few hours later.

On an evening roll call the order ‘caps off’ was repeated nineteen times because one of the prisoners being completely exhausted always came late. This prisoner was not allowed to attend the sick ward. He had no strength enough that night to have his supper. The following morning he was found dead.

A prisoner found guilty of eating grass was beaten, put in a wheelbarrow, and in that way thrown in the water. He succeeded in getting out remained Mute during a few days. Suddenly he recovered but he was mad and he insulted the Germans into French, he spoiled his clothes, etc. He was brought to a cell. Next day he was released from the cell and got ‘light work’. Two days later he committed suicide by hanging.

Two brothers of Antwerp (Lithuanian) were arrested together (brothers Sbirsky). The first one physically weak not knowing French nor German was asked to report at the Gestapo. His brother stronger and knowing French, Flemish, and German, decided to accompany him. Both were arrested and sent to Breendonk without being interrogated. The first one had to sing for the benefit of the staff. He had to work as well and died completely exhausted. His brother became mad. The lieutenant told their mother that he was keeping them under his personal protection.

Some prisoners tried to fake a greater weakness than the real one. It didn’t help at all since the SS were never impressed by it but on the contrary tried to get weak people completely down. An Antwerp pedlar (I. Neumann N. 22) a dwarf quite insane, was brought to the camp for being too late outside in Antwerp. He was used as a puppet by the staff who had him dancing when visitors came or singing. He got light work but enjoyed bad treatment from the head of the room N.1. Very often he didn’t get any breakfast since his bed was not done according to the rules (he was really unable to do it). Of course he was unable to perform any decent PT (He didn’t find out the difference between right and left). And very often he was physically punished for it. He died completely exhausted after five or six months.

(signed) Paul M. G. Levy

Appendix F
Extract from a Statement Made by Madame Paquet, 28 rue de Zéphir, Woluwé Saint Lambert, Brussells, October 30 1944
(Translated from French)

At Breendonk I lived in a cell (Room 8 – Cell 16) upright from 6 o’clock in the morning till 8 at night and sleeping at night without covering or mattress. During my stay I had on handcuffs both day and night : they were only taken off for ten minutes in the morning to allow me to empty the white metal cover-less bucket which served as a latrine. This emptying took place in the inside of the camp, where I was led by an armed soldier, my head being covered by a hood.

I was interrogated six or seven times in the SS room. This was a round room without windows with a table and a bench on which SS sat as spectators. On the left at the end was a pulley attached to the ceiling from which passed a rope ending in a running knot. My hands were tied behind my back with big wood fiber handcuffs which were passed through the running knot. Entirely naked I was lifted above the ground and beaten with a rubber truncheon covered in leather and wielded by Major Schmidt, Lieutenant Prauss and the SS Wijss and Debodt. In the course of one of these interrogations, I had my nails crushed in a kind of iron letter-copying machine.

After the first interrogation the medical orderly Vliegers gave me an injection in the breast. Thinking that it was intended to stupefy me, I took advantage of a moment’s inattention to put my fingers down my throat thus making myself vomit. I heard the orderly say to Major Schmidt ‘It’s no good, the injection makes her sick’. In addition I, as well as my cell companions, received almost every day punches and truncheon blows, which among other things, broke my teeth.

In the course of the daily outing to empty the bucket I received a bayonet wound in the arm, the sentry thinking that I was lifting up my hood. Another time he struck me with the stock of his rifle in the back of the neck, resulting in a curvature of the spine.

Notes : (1) The press found at Soignie which is referred to in paragraph 47 of the report was taken to Mme Paquet. She identified it as identical with the instrument with which her finger nails had been crushed off. She was loath to look at it for long and expressed a wish that it might be taken away as quickly as possible. (2) Mme Paquet was a member of the Underground Movement.

This is the Press you can see in the Fort Breendonk Museum. This photo and the one bellow doesn’t need caption. Both were sent to me by M. Olivier Van der Wilt from the Breendonk Memorial.

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Appendix G
Notes Made as a Result of two Interviews with Adolf Singer
60 Place Colignon, Brussels

M. Singer was an Austrian Jewish Doctor

Note : The original notes were signed by Dr. Singer
Entered Breendonk : March 3 1941
Left Breendonk : March 31 1944

Singer was arrested for entering Belgium from France without the permission of the GERMAN authorities. He was released by the arrival of Allied troops in Belgium, he was at Caserne Dossin in Malines, preparatory to being sent east. Singer did not know where the bodies of Breendonk victims were taken for burial although to his knowledge some three hundred people were shot and about fifteen hanged during his time at the camp.

In practice in Vienna as a doctor before the Anschluss, Singer was appointed to assist in the Breendonk infirmary. He held this post for a year and a half. In this capacity he entered the torture chamber to treat the victims of the ordeal. To his knowledge five or six women were tortured in this room and received just as brutal treatment as the men : suspension, lashings, beating, etc. During the winter of 1942/1943 he personally attended a Belgian woman, a lawyer’s wife, who had been severely beaten after being suspended from the pulley on the ceiling. He treated her in her cell. Her thighs were badly marked. She was later sent to Germany. He treated Mme Paquet for heart trouble. (see bellow).

Singer was only allowed to attend non-political prisoners. He worked with the following medical orderlies :

  • Kemp : a good man who did as much as he could for the prisoners under his care
  • Felsegger : a really bad character who beat the patients brought before him, the worst type possible
  • Fliegauf : a brutal man who ill-treated those under his care

The German doctor who was responsible for the camp in the beginning was one Kochling who really did nothing for the prisoners. He visited the camp twice a week but hardly cared about the conditions. Many men died because of his indifferent attitude. He was succeeded in his job by Major Pohl, a Wehrmacht doctor, who did a great deal to improve conditions in Breendonk and who personally intervened with General Falkenhausen to secure more food for the prisoners. He was a good man.

Singer also knew Mrs Schmidt, the Camp Correpsondant’s Wife, and says she had sadistic tendencies. She would watch the prisoners work and faint from ill-treatment. She noted as her husband’s secretary for a time. She was about five feet six inches in height, and had dark hair and eyes, full lips and had a sensual appearance.

Schmidt and Prauss were responsible for making the prisoners stand naked while awaiting medical inspection. They sometimes had to stand for nearly two hours while waiting to be examined. Prisoners were often lousy in spite of attempts at disinfection. Each new arrival from another prison brought more lice with him. The most men at one time in one camp numbered six hundred or slightly more. The most in the infirmary at one time numbered one hundred and fifty.

To Singer’s knowledge about five hundred men were killed or died at Breendonk during his time there. He knows of no women who were killed.

After the fall of Stalingrad SS Katschuster gave an order to SS Wijss and SS De Bodt that eighteen Jews and two Aryans were to be thrown into the water because he said the Jews were responsible for the Stalingrad defeat and Russia during the war. Those men were thrown into the water and beaten on the head until they drowned. Dr Singer saw the bodies afterwards.

Signs Used to Mark the Prisoners at Breendonk
(as stated by Dr. SINGER)

  • Yellow : Jews
  • White : Aryan
  • Red : Those suspected of Political activity had a red mark superimposed on the bar. The Jews had one on their yellow bar
  • White : British sympathizers were denoted by a red V (Compiler’s note : the V stood for Victory : this being German humour)
  • A red circle worn front and rear indicated those that might attempt an escape. This marked the prisoners for special attention and surveillance

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Appendix H
Notes on my Stay at Camp Breendonk
Period April 2 – May 21 1943
by T. Frankignoulle
(Translated from French)

I was arrested at home at 0400 in the morning by a sergeant and two gendarmes. I was taken to the Gestapo Hq, Avenue Louise, where I was put in a garage, face to the wall, guarded by two sentries who were already indulging in brutalities against the men who were brought there. Certain prisoners, who were made to keep their hands in the air for half an hour, were kicked, punched, and beaten with rifle butts. I remained standing without moving until midday. Then the men were loaded into lorries – forty-eight in nine (48 Men and 9 Horses) – and in the most impossible positions.

We were taken straight to Breendonk. On our arrival, the ill treatment began immediately. We were lined up in twos (were seventy-three in number) in the tunnel which leads to the camp, lashes of the whip fell like rain on those who dared to move. The lieutenant set the example. We were immediately sent to the barbers (hair, beards, and mustaches cut off) divested of our civil clothes and everything we had on us, papers, money, etc, and dressed like convicts (khaki trousers and coats with numbers and distinctive signs) after which we were taken to a room containing forty-eight prisoners.

Towards 1400 hours we went outside and were handed over to the Belgian SS who made us do marching drills. We had to throw ourselves on the ground, crawl, etc, this to the accompaniment of many a blow, and without regard to age or state of health. The next day we were put to work : digging, working with the pick, filling and wheeling barrows and carrying baskets, picking up stones, always under the threat of blows.

As soon as we arrived we could see the pitiful state of the unfortunate people who had preceded us. Some were covered with sores and boils. The torturers of the camp nearly always set on the same ones. I have personally witnessed atrocities which pass imagination. A Jew one day suffered such martyrdom at the hands of his room, a German Jew called Ohlatt, that he died the following night. The scenes were of daily occurrence. Another day a prisoner was caught by a Flemish laborer who worked on the farm, whose name was Amelinckx and horribly beaten for having taken a piece of swede.

An SS called Peleman who came along, fell on the unfortunate man with blows and kicks, leaving him covered with blood. Almost daily we heard the frightful cries of men and even women, who were undergoing the most terrible tortures in the rooms designed to make them talk. I remember the cries of one woman which left a most atrocious impression on my mind.

We were ill nourished and after a few days almost the whole of our contingent were the victims of lice. We had to carry out the most filthy tasks, empty the ditches of dung-water, etc. In the yards where we worked our hands were easily injured. We received no treatment and on our return to camp we were made to clean our shoes, shovels and picks, etc, in a great trough full of muddy water containing the remains of urine and other impurities.

A day rarely passed but the prisoners, lined up in the courtyard, had to witness the punishment of one or other of the men, called from the ranks to receive, bent over double, up to twenty-five or thirty strokes of the stick. It was nearly always SS Wijss who was allotted this atrocious job, which he carried out with unparalleled fury. The day after he was beaten in this manner, a man whose back was but one single sore, was made to work all day at the hopper with a sackful of bricks. He received many a blow in the course of that terrible day’s work. We were not even quiet at night. Several times we were woken and beaten for a trifle.

One day all our room were punished by the ‘atone job’. That day we were put on loading stones, some weighing up to 30 kilos (sixty-six pounds) on our shoulders, and carrying them seven hundred yards away. This work had to be carried out at the run. This lasted two and a half hours.

My wife sent me various parcels of clothing and food. Nothing, however, was given to the prisoners.

At the beginning of the month of May the prisoners who were working as carpenters had to prepare the scaffold and gallows intended for some people condemned to death. I myself worked on the clearing of ground which the NAZIS were preparing for the place of execution. It was opposite to the ten posts where numerous Belgians had been shot before. On May 10 1943 they made us stop work sooner than usual. SS De Bodt had told us there were to be three hangings. The Germans had made a real ceremony of it. There were many officers and members of the Gestapo there to witness the execution. I saw from my window the procession crossing the courtyard. Poor Fraiteur, who walked first of the three condemned (they all had their hands tied behind their backs) was led by the left arm by the lieutenant, and by the right arm by a member of the Gestapo. The second was held by SS Wijss, the third by SS De Bodt, and both of them by a member of the Gestapo.

15 Minutes later the procession re-passed through the courtyard. A car contained the coffins of the three victims. The next day I was able to ascertain that they had been hung with chains.

The Medical Officer, Schmidtt, had a big Alsatian. This dog cruelly bit several internees. The lieutenant, Brauss, speaking to the dog, said in so many words ‘Would you like to tear them all to pieces’. The Medical Officer’s wife often walked about the yards all dressed up. A little girl, daughter or relative of the Medical Officer was also seen on this ground. She might have been twelve or thirteen years old. The surgery was open in the mornings. The sick or wounded hesitated to go there. Sometimes you got blows there. Sometimes the corporal medical orderly exempted a man from work. But he had to go on parade in the courtyard. It was the lieutenant who decided in the end. This he sometimes did with strokes of the stick.

Some men were hungry. They picked up whatever they could, grass, roots, leaves, potato peelings or even bones buried in the manure. A dead lamb, stripped of its fleece, was buried. Some prisoners having seen this, disinterred the lamb and ate it.

I remained two months at Breendonk and three months at the Citadelle De Huy. My health was affected by it. I had to give up my employment as a civil servant for seven months. I underwent an intestinal operation in July 1944. I am still to this day underweight by about thirteen pounds.

(signed) T. Frankignoulle
34, Rue de Parme, Saint Gilles, Brussels
November 3 1944

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