Breendonk is like a blotch of dark dried blood on the canvas of time. Usually not on the radar of travellers passing through Europe, Breendonk is hidden away behind the shimmering lights of Brussels and Antwerp. While travelling on the highway between the two cities, Antonio – a Belgian of Portuguese descent and a dear friend – pointed out the forbidding walls of Breendonk, Europe’s smallest WWII concentration camp. The Holocaust and its enormity is often lost on non-Europeans, perhaps because an Indian like me reads about death and destruction in some corner of his world every day. He is perhaps justified in being a bit blasé about a genocide that is more than half a century old. However, Antonio insisted and under the cold gray skies, I entered the cold, gray concrete walls and was struck by the macabre morbidity of this ‘hell called Breendonk’.
On September 20, 1940, Fort Breendonk, under German occupation, received its first prisoners. More of a transit camp, hundreds of bruised and battered Jews and Belgian resistance fighters huddled against these walls before being carted away to the horrific death dungeons of Auschwitz in Poland. But Breendonk always exacted its pound of flesh, often literally. Hundreds – beaten, tortured and starved to death. I could almost hear the heavy boots on cobbled stone, the cries of “Heil Hitler!” and tortured screams echoing against these narrow walls. I witnessed torture chambers where man tore man, limb from limb, because there was nothing to make his morale fall in an environment where cruel intentions received communal sanction. I realised that in the lives we share in India, there are no shrines to the dead of Godhra and Gujarat, to the Sikhs of Delhi and in Kolkata, to the victims of the great Kolkata killing to remind us that here too, man often fell as low, if not lower. In each of these cities, like in Breendonk, people – like you and me, and a number of them – blinded by blood lust, deaf to the wails of women, and the pitiful cries of little children in mortal pain, bathed in an orgy of bloodletting. Bound like Fernand Wijss, a popular 21 year old athlete, transformed by the war into a cruel, ruthless camp guard, who beat, mutilated and killed detainees at Breendonk. Patriots, communists and Jews were welcomed to Breendonk by Wijss, who declared ‘This is hell and I am the devil!’. And the devil he was, for at his trial after the war, he claimed “I was only motivated by the love of violence.” Remorseless and undaunted, he was unmoved and unaffected when the courts sentenced him to death. Much like Eugene Raess, a 22 year old carpenter, who became a member of the Flemish SS (Schutzstaffel – Protective Squadron) and was known to particularly enjoy torturing prisoners in Breendonk. After the war, Raess was convicted of war crimes and was singing SS songs even as he was being sentenced. These young men, as motivated as they were cruel, were driven and desensitized by propaganda that corrupted hitherto disfranchised people like Wijss and Raess with power and a false sense of purpose. Wijss and Raess were no different from the young men and women of today who strap themselves to a bomb in search of martyrdom, glory and the same false sense of purpose.
Men like Wijss and Raess will continue to destroy their world and their souls till we can build a society which is prepared, to its last individual, to question its dogmas and understand what is good and most importantly, has the moral courage to withstand suffering. It isn’t easy as Marcel de Saffel and Kapo Walter Obler discovered. Marcel, a journalist who once wrote against Mussolini’s fascism was arrested by the Nazis and given a choice – he could ‘co-operate’ with the Nazis against his countrymen or he could face the fate of an ‘enemy of the regime’. De Saffel cooperated and how, by beating and brutalizing inmates at Breendonk. When tried as a war criminal, de Saffel was the one of the rare few to repent and ask for forgiveness. Obler was a poor Jew who loved the opera. Arrested and brought to Breendonk, Obler became a work supervisor and shocked even the Jew hating Nazi Commander with the severe beatings he inflicted on his fellow Jews. Many died, broken and mangled under his truncheon. Unlike Wijss and Raess and like many amongst us, Obler and de Saffel knew the right path, but just did not have the courage to walk on that path.
Courage of the kind that a little known man, Mark Angel lives by and demonstrates everyday. I read about Mark, an American salvage diver, in a magazine, that spoke of an incident in Oregon, where he dove into the depths of a river with a broken leg in search of a 17 year old girl who had drowned. He dove again and again in search of the girl till he pulled her out. Although he lost thousands of dollars worth of equipment and suffered painful injuries, he did not accept payment for this task.
In an ordinary world, where Wijss, Raess and the devils that manipulate them lurk in every corner, the world would become a better place if more of us could muster courage like that of Mark Angel.