A former fortress, originally built as part of the defensive fortifications around the nearby city of Antwerp, Belgium
. During the country's occupation by Germany
, the fort was used as a prison and as a transit camp in the Holocaust
>More background info
>What there is to see
>Access and costs
>Combinations with other dark destinations
>Combinations with non-dark destinations
More background info:
Fort Breendonk, constructed from 1909, is a typical brick and concrete fortress of the type that was still deemed crucial for defence purposes at the time. It did indeed see some action in World War One
– and in continued to be in military use between the wars.
However, it earns its place on the dark tourism map through its (mis-)use by the Nazis during the German
occupation of Belgium
, when the place was turned into a dungeon for political prisoners and a transit camp for Jews who were later deported to the death camps
in the east during the Holocaust
As such it was in use from September 1940 to September 1944. A comparatively small place, it is estimated that some 3600 victims of the Nazis passed through Breendonk, about half of whom did not survive.
After its liberation by Allied forces on 4 September 1944, the fort was then used to imprison Nazi collaborators, and subsequently served as a state prison for a brief period. As early as 1947 it was turned into a memorial.
Initially more a place of pilgrimage, the site was subsequently commodified more. A makeover in 2003 added panels and illustrations as well as audiovisual elements. Until the opening of the new museum at Kazerne Dossin in Mechelen
, Breendonk was thus a premier site commemorating the Nazi
terror in Belgium
and the Holocaust
. Now, at least in terms of depth of information, Breendonk can hardly compete with its newer counterpart, but it still scores better in terms of place authenticity.
What there is to see: The gate to the fort complex is by a single-storey outer building, which is also where to get your ticket and audio guide. The latter is available in Dutch, French, English, German and Spanish. If your language skills in Dutch or French are limited, do make sure to take and use an audio guide. I declined, because I’m no great fan of these machines (I often find the narration not engaging enough, and they get in the way of photography), but later regretted it a bit when I found that many of the information panels in the exhibition parts are only bilingual (Dutch/French). Some also offer English, some additionally German translations too, but not in all cases.
The text below describes the circuit through the memorial as I found it in August 2016. There may have been changes made in the meantime.
You cross the bridge that leads across the moat and to the main entrance. Inside, long, dark and dank corridors take you into the bowels of the fort. A first exhibition room is about the early history of Fort Breendonk, followed by one about its role in WW1
The really dark sections begin with a room whose walls are covered with the names of those who passed through Breendonk during WWII
and did not survive. In the centre of the room are urns with victims’ ashes from various concentration camps
Further along dark corridors one room contains blow-ups of death certificates from Breendonk (in German). Then you can step into one of the fort’s courtyards, where there are some panels about forced labour. Back inside you enter the prison part in the casemates, “guarded” by a dummy in a Nazi
There are cells of different sizes, some big and vaulted and with sets of three-tier wooden bunk beds. The Breendonk website claims these are original, but I found them to be in too good a condition to really be that old, but who knows … Another large cell also has an oven and tables, stools, food bowls and kitchen utensils. There are large photos and drawings illustrating camp life, a couple of screens play videos, and the audio guide numbers tell you what to dial on the machine to get additional information.
Next comes a section with tiny isolation cells made from bricks and with just a single wooden plank and a bucket inside (you can guess what for) – this was the prison inside the prison, as it were.
The wash rooms can also be seen, one side room branching off a tunnel has a carpenters workshop with a couple of coffins that still seem to await use, and then you get to the torture chamber, which naturally has an especially dark aura.
A long, narrow, windowless corridor leads to underneath one of the steel cupolas with gun emplacements from the pre-WW1 era. Drawings on the wall illustrate their inner workings.
The circuit continues with the other courtyard, in which the so-called “Jodenbarakken” (barracks for Jews) stood. One such wooden extra building can be entered; it has yet more bunk beds inside as well as carts and tools from the forced labour inmates had to do. A large blow-up of a magnified image of a louse illustrates what unwelcome bedfellows inmates had to endure. Next come the latrines and then you step outside again.
The outdoor circuit takes you past the main concrete battlements with the gun emplacements at the top and plenty of barbed wire on and around them. At the far end of the south-eastern battlement is another very dark spot: the gallows. A plaque lists names of victims executed here.
You then finish the walk around the fort and eventually enter the large shower rooms. You can also peek into a former pigsty and a workshop or smithy. Another exhibition tract introduces visitors to some key figures, and at a couple of computer stations you can access inmates/victims’ archives (the motto here is “I’m not a number”). Exhibition rooms display historical photos and some artefacts, including striped concentration-camp clothes, whips, and other objects, related not just to Breendonk but the whole system of concentration camps
, labour camps and transit camps.
One section is about Belgian resistance groups, another about other prisons used by the Nazis
during the German occupation of Belgium
. And finally one is about the liberation of the fort on 4 September 1944. All labels, texts and info screen material in these sections are available in four languages, with German and English in addition to the usual Dutch and French.
The circuit through the fort ends where it leads back across the moat via the other, longer steel bridge. At the other end of this bridge stands a railway cattle car – the kind used in the deportations to the camps in the east. Inside is a drawing depicting the cramped conditions victims had to endure during their deportation in such trains.
Back by the main gate, the building behind the ticket office houses a final exhibition, now about the post-war era and trials against perpetrators and collaborators. This is, again, only bilingual (Dutch/French).
All in all, the fort itself is certainly visually impressive, in that dark and dank sense, especially the long prison corridors and cells. However, in terms of commodification and information it felt rather crude and a bit outdated, at least stylistically. The fact that the exhibition parts are inconsistent linguistically is, at least for some international visitors, another detraction. The audio guide may have alleviated some of this. But since I didn’t use the audio guide I cannot comment on its quality. Despite certain shortfalls, though, Breendonk is still very much worth a visit, at least as a site of great place authenticity.
in northern Belgium
, ca. 12 miles (18 km) south of Antwerp, on the A12 towards Brussels, which is about 15 miles (25 km) to the south of Breendonk.
Access and costs: easy to get to by car, less conveniently by public transport; a (mid price) admission fee is charged.
Details: To get there you can take a train or bus to Willebroek and walk – from the train station it takes ca. 20 minutes, first south along Jozef Wautersstraat and then west along Dendermondsesteenweg and Rijksweg. Bus “De Lijn” 287 (Mechelen - Boon) gets you closest to the fort (300 m), and the bus stop is actually called “Fort van Breendonk”.
Most conveniently, the site is reached by car; it's just off exit 7 of the main A12 motorway between Brussels and Antwerp. GPS-users should enter not the fort’s official postal address (Brandstraat 57) but the following: Dendermondsesteenweg 309/307, 2830 Willebroek. This will take you to the (free) car park.
Admission: 11 EUR regular – some concessions apply to under 18-year-olds, students, senior citizens, soldiers as well as for groups. Audio guide included.
Opening times: daily 9:30 a.m. to 5:30 p.m., last admission 4:30 p.m. (closed Christmas Eve/Day andNew Year's Eve/Day)
Time required: The official recommendation says that you should allow two hours.
Combinations with other dark destinations:
in general see under Belgium
The closest, and thematically related, other dark site is Kazerne Dossin in Mechelen
, less than 10 miles (15 km) to the east along the N16 route by car, or by bus/train to Mechelen plus ca. 30-minute walk through the city centre.
Combinations with non-dark destinations: Nearby Antwerp, Belgium’s second city (after the capital Brussels) is one of the most interesting places in the country and well worth visiting for a day or two. It may not have the consistent grandeur of Bruges or Ghent, but its waterfront location near the Scheldt River estuary and its huge harbour is a bonus. Antwerp is also known as a centre of the diamond trade, and the Diamond Quarter, where a large proportion of the world’s diamonds are cut and traded, is still largely a centre of Jewish life (plus elements of Jain Indian, Lebanese and Armenian pockets). Adjacent to this quarter is the central train station, widely regarded as one of the grandest such structures in the world!
For more see under Belgium
- Breendonk 01 - gate
- Breendonk 02 - bridge
- Breendonk 03 - watchtower
- Breendonk 04 - going in
- Breendonk 05 - guard
- Breendonk 06 - dummy Nazi
- Breendonk 07 - long dark corridor
- Breendonk 08 - commodification
- Breendonk 09 - dorm
- Breendonk 10 - living quarters
- Breendonk 11 - claim that the living conditions of the inmates at the fort are crammed but bearable
- Breendonk 12 - isolation cell
- Breendonk 13 - not especially comfy
- Breendonk 14 - deep in the casemate
- Breendonk 15 - coffin
- Breendonk 16 - courtyard
- Breendonk 17 - in the barracks for Jewish inmates
- Breendonk 18 - exterior of the fort and camp
- Breendonk 19 - concrete and barbed wire
- Breendonk 20 - forced labour relics
- Breendonk 21 - steel domes
- Breendonk 22 - execution site
- Breendonk 23 - mass toilets
- Breendonk 24 - wash room
- Breendonk 25 - stables
- Breendonk 26 - workshop
- Breendonk 27 - exhibits
- Breendonk 28 - computer workstations
- Breendonk 29 - concentration camp clothes
- Breendonk 30 - concentration camps memorial room
- Breendonk 31 - back at the bridge
- Breendonk 32 - rail carriage
- Breendonk 33 - deportation train
- Breendonk 34 - extra exhibition by the visitor centre
- Breendonk 35 - covering post-war trials
- Breendonk 36 - outer barbed-wire fence