I’d been to Breendonk fortress before, about five years ago, looking up places featured in W.G. Sebald’s novel Austerlitz. So when I asked a Belgian friend about a place to visit on January 27, International Holocaust Remembrance Day, and the answer was, emphatically, Breendonk, I wasn’t surprised.
On that first visit, infused with Sebald’s sense of territories unable to conceal the substrata of their histories, Breendonk silenced my curiosity and I left chastened. Five years on, as if waiting to be summoned, one impression returns: the photo of a small person carrying a soup pail.
Driving there now, on a cold, crisp day in late January I am aware that this visit is not, as the first one was, about interest. This visit is about returning: I know what I will find and I’m afraid of finding it.
Geoff Dyer writes: “The act of looking … is overlaid by the emotions it will engender.”
By returning, my malaise – still palpable – has become ritual, anticipating not only sorrow, but remembered sorrow. And that is something. But it is enough? Can it ever be?
Breendonk’s history is closely linked to that of Belgium. In 1830, when Belgium was granted independence by the five major powers (France, Austria, Britain, Prussia and Russia) participating at the London or “Belgian” Conference, the terms of its existence as a constitutional monarchy specified mandatory neutrality in foreign affairs. In return, the major powers promised military protection for the small state when needed. The city of Antwerp was chosen as national redoubt – a bolt hole for government and army in uncertain times – and reinforced by a double ring of defenses. Newly fearful of their powerful neighbour following the Franco-Prussian war of 1870-1, plans were drawn up for a new, outer ring of forts around Antwerp. Built around 1907 using concrete rather than brick, Breendonk formed part of this outer ring and served as a garrison.
In a (now timely) reminder of how walled fortifications can – and will – change hands, Breendonk fell along with Antwerp in late 1914 and was occupied by German troops for the duration of WWI. In WWII, during Germany’s occupation of Belgium 1940-44, the fort was used as a prison or detention camp (Auffanglager) for dissidents, resistance fighters and Jews. It serves today as a memorial site (www.memorialmuseums.org) to the 3500 prisoners who suffered in conditions that differed only nominally and in scale from those of the concentration camps to which many detainees were subsequently deported: the use of torture and the threat of summary execution: 184 shot and 23 hanged; and mistreatment: some 100 who died of exhaustion and malnutrition.
Of these, it is Isaac Neumann (still described by the audio guide as a dwarf) whose image I now I look for again as I pass along icy corridors, study photos, documents and drawings, try to absorb the fatigue and existential fear, listen to the biographies of oppressors and victims, hurry past the gallows and the execution wall, wanting and not wanting to find a way into knowing, and into Wiesenthal’s call to testimony.
Although crucial, a name (Isaac Neumann) cannot bear the load of testimony alone. Neither can a story: Neumann was rounded up by chance during a raid in Antwerp and died from injuries sustained when a fellow inmate tossed him into the air to entertain camp commanders. And seen, accepted in and of itself, that photo of Neumann is also too little: a face, distressingly calm, almost chirpy, humbled by accustomed disability. He carries a pail of something (presumably soup, since the photo is part of the kitchen exhibit) that comes up to his knees, causing him to lean leftwards in counterbalance of his load. Regulation trousers, shortened, and a cap set parallel to his listing gait.
Three sides of a triangle that come together now: a name, a face, a story. And pressing in upon it, the additional freight of invisible, endured indignities: of court dwarfs by Velasquez, of Toulouse-Lautrec and Antonio Gramsci. A boy at my school.
I think it must be this – the derision and compassion (both heightened) reserved for otherness – that makes Neumann so real to me. His otherness is evident, visible. It subsumes the otherness of the other victims around him, for which there are no outer signs, and brings it into my world. And inevitably, closer too, to my failings as a witness. struggling to do justice to the silences that surround difference. Trying to look and then, having to look away. And then, looking back. Possibly accreting, almost osmotically, a small idea of how it was.