Thursday, July 22, 2010

BACK TO BREENDONK

The skies are always grey when I come here. Through the barbed wire, the world inside looked just the way I’d seen it a few years ago, serene and lonely, like a widow whose heart still hurts but whose eyes have run dry. Fort Breendonk hadn’t changed.

Sixty years ago, these walls were wet, with blood and sweat. Their foundations creaked under heavy boots; painful screams, the sickening thud of wood beating against flesh, and the deafening sound of gunfire echoed through these walls. This was a Nazi concentration camp where prisoners, Jews, communists, were greeted with the words “Welcome to Breendonk. This is hell, and I’m the devil!”, and the man who’d welcome them thus, Fernand Wyss, a sadistic 21-year-old boxer turned SS (Schutzstaffel – Protection Squadron) guard had built up a reputation as a man who took pleasure in beating… not shooting or stabbing, but beating those in his charge to a messy death.

Breendonk, now a memorial to those who suffered and died here, is a short drive from Antwerp, Belgium. During World War II, it was a transit camp where Jews and other opponents of the Reich were brought in rail-road cattle-cars – men, women and children packed in, 150 to a car which shouldn’t have taken 50. They travelled for days, with no food and little water. Without access to toilets, the inmates were forced to soil the car. Many died of exhaustion and suffocation. But the journey, however bad, couldn’t compare with the horrors of Breendonk.

The stories I’d heard last came rushing back. Stories I narrated to friends back home in India. So this summer when we all packed our bags and headed out towards Europe for the summer, we made it a point to punctuate the happy itinerary with a trip to Breendonk.

But somehow, the place didn’t have the same effect on my friends. The prison-walls, cold and clammy on the warmest of days; the forbidding barbed wire fencing which bit into hands and flesh as desperate prisoners attempted to escape; the guard tower which rained down bullets on hapless victims; the dark waters of the moat in which guards would watch prisoners drown and die for fun… they all, unwitting instruments and witnesses to one of mankind’s greatest crimes, were strangely silent that day. They did not speak to my friends that day of the dark tales they hide in their folds. We wandered into the torture chamber where hung hooks and winches and skewers and rods…who knows what depths of pain they dug into and yet, they revealed little to most. The bunk-beds where the prisoners slept, their only corner where they knew a little peace, where their thoughts went back to their life before camp, a life that had love and loved ones, and the forgotten comforts of life as a human being, and yet the beds spoke little of those dreams that died here...

To my friends, the life of an inmate who had the ‘liberty’ of going to a toilet, and a crumb of bread and a cup of coffee everyday, and a roof over his head and a straw mattress to call his own had a life no worse than that endured by the poorest of poor in India. And true, indeed in pure material terms, the prisoners perhaps had more. But why did the walls not tell them that it isn’t the food that made Breendonk hell but the sight of loved ones lined up and shot, and the fear of pain that makes a child blind to the suffering of a father being beaten to death and hate that father for screaming out his name in agony, and the agony of having to live with the shame of that betrayal. It is the ignominy of that realisation that in the cattle car where you lie, squashed between limbs of the living and the dead, covered in dried crusts of your own feces and urine, you matter less than the excrement you wallow in, that you’ll never again see love nor life, that you now are doomed to a life without the one thing that makes life worth living – hope.

Breendonk was the world of the depraved matched only by Auschwitz and its burning pits fed by the bodies of the living. But more than physical pain, Breendonk tore open wounds with the way it ravaged the psyche. Right after Belgium fell to Hitler’s forces, fuelled by fear, seeking approval and protection, ordinary Belgians allied with the German occupation forces and joined the Flemish SS. These Flemish guards turned on their own countrymen and became feared Nazi operatives, famous for their ruthless savagery.

Inside concentration camps like Breendonk this climate of fear created the ‘kapo’. Basically, the kapo was a prisoner who was picked from amongst his fellow inmates to act as a prison guard. And surprisingly, most kapo, instead of lending a hand to a fallen brother would more oft en bring it down with greater force than the SS. Kapos acquired a reputation for brutality, mercilessly torturing the very people they had travelled to camp in those cattle cars with, to the people with whom in happier days they might have shared faith, bread and prayers, their loyalties bought with as little as another piece of bread or as much as the promise of freedom.

And what makes a camp like Breendonk such a deep scar in the heart of man is the realisation that there have been times in the past, and God forbid they ever happen again, that people who I today smile at and shake hands with at work, people I break bread and go to movies and dinners with, people I come back home to…they are all people who in Breendonk I might have turned away from when they called out my name, are people I might have raised my hand or worse against if I knew that doing so could save my life or buy me my freedom. And this shame is a shame that poverty, though no less a curse, is yet to taint our lives with. Like my friends, I too hope that poverty is reduced to a memorial one day, and I hope that the Holocaust never returns, but if it does, may our compassion give us the courage to remain human in the face of pain and fear...

P.S. And why do my friends, some of the most conscientious and giving people I know, not hear all your stories? Breendonk, like the widow, you perhaps hold your grief too close. You should tell us your stories more often.


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4 comments:

  1. 人生中最重要的是要自尊、自愛、自立、自強、自信。..................................................

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  2. Prashanto, it is heart-rending to know about the terrible past of Breendonk. Although there are no concentration camps these days the plight of many humans on earth is reminiscent to those in the concentration camps. We all feel sorry about it, shed a few tears, study it as a classic case of human terror, make movies or write books. Paradoxically, we fail to recognize that it is we who create such situations. One evil man cannot destroy the innocent unless we allow him to. It is not a failure of logic,it is a failure of humanity.

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  3. Touching, Literary and an excellent sarcasm on human and humanity.
    Imagine in our country, a five-year old kid can be mauled and killed by a dog, parents can throw their three month old daughter in a sump, in the dead of night, because she cries and disturbs their sleep, a rag-picker falls in a open drain in Bangalore, is rescued and again goes back to the drain in search of his rag-bag and then loses his life...

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