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The Camp of Silence and of Death

by Eileen Younghusband née le croissette

Contributed by 
Eileen Younghusband née le croissette
People in story: 
Eileen Younghusband
Location of story: 
Breendonck, Belgium
Background to story: 
Royal Air Force
Article ID: 
Contributed on: 
30 November 2003

by Eileen M. Younghusband.

After VE Day in May 1945, the work I was doing in calculating the launch sites of V2s aimed at the area around Antwerp ended. I was at that time stationed as a WAAF Officer at Mechelen, Belgium. Since I spoke French, I was subsequently drafted to work at Breendonck, a little known concentration camp. The Senior RAF officer had given orders that all personnel in the area should visit this prison and it was my duty to escort them around and remind them of the atrocities perpetrated there. Thus, as many service personnel as possible would learn of the sufferings of some of the Belgian people and the barbarism of the invader.

I will never forget that time. Only half an hour's journey from the sophisticated city of Brussels, in the Flemish- speaking countryside of Belgium, there stands an old fortress. This was Breendonck. It has never been a beauty spot nor a site visited by foreign tourists. Yet there are many people who will never forget it nor forget its wartime name, "Le Camp du Silence et de Mort".

Built in the Middle Ages, many battles have been fought around its walls. The deep moat has offered protection to its occupants over the decades and its dungeons hold untold secrets of the past. But the twentieth century saw the most terrible chapter in its history. Soon after the German forces swept through Northern Europe and occupied Belgium, they turned the medieval fort into a prison, a concentration camp. They filled it with Jews, gypsies, homosexuals, members of the Resistance and political prisoners.

There, the conquerors fabricated their own brands of horror. The walls, built of huge blocks of stone and surrounded by a deep moat appeared impregnable. The latest occupiers added barbed wire fences and armed guards. Inside, the cells, each a bare five-foot square and about seven feet high were cold, dank, and comfortless. In the daytime, the prisoners were pinioned upright against the far wall by their ankles, their hands stretched above their heads and manacled. There they remained the entire daylight hours. Their only relief came at mealtimes, just twice a day, when their hands were released. Then to reach the scant food offered them, pushed through a cat-hole in the door, they were forced to crouch on the ground, to eat as best they could. At night they lay on the uneven stone floor, covered only with a thin blanket.

Among the many chambers of the prison, one was especially infamous. Here the Gestapo conducted their daily sessions of torture. Prisoners lay naked on a solid wooden table, resembling a butcher's block whilst electric current was applied to the bare moist parts of their body. They suffered indescribable agonies, burns, convulsions and even death. As they became unconscious, their torturers threw them upon a low slatted bed. Jack-booted guards stamped on their legs, invariably breaking bones, to bring them back to consciousness. The broken slats bore witness to the force used. This was not all. With a horrible sense of calculated cruelty, they forced the next candidate for torture to stand behind a screen in the chamber and listen to those screams 0£ anguish and to anticipate their own fate.

In the courtyard, daily shootings took place; the victims tied to wooden stakes already brown with the blood of those who had died before. In a nearby area, the guards buried Jewish prisoners up to their necks and left them to suffocate and to perish. The more fortunate prisoners, not destined for immediate death, could be seen from dawn to dusk, harnessed to an enormous wheel, force to push it around for hours on end until their backs were raw. They were drawing water up from a well, the only source for the whole site.

The policy of the Camp Commander aimed to eliminate the weak by any conceivable method and he pursued this policy with sadistic vigour. One of his many ways of doing this occurred during the weekly bathtime. The prisoners made to strip, waited in a compound in the open air, winter or summer, rain or shine and then were forced into baths filled with scalding water. Afterwards, once again they were subjected to a further wait outside before being permitted to dress and return to their cells. Without doubt, many already sick, succumbed to the harsh measures and died. Yet despite all odds, some prisoners survived and when the Allies liberated the region in the Autumn of 1944, these broken men and women were able to tell the liberating forces of their ordeals and of the many atrocities they had witnessed. Some of the survivors returned to tell me of the horrors and to show me their permanent scars.

My tour of duty lasted only three weeks; the memories of those three weeks will remain forever etched on my mind. The world will never forget Belsen, Auschwitz, Treblinka; I will never forget Breendonck

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