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Torture (Working Title 7.1)

WHOEVER VISITS BELGIUM as a tourist might happen upon Fort Breendonk, halfway between Brussels and Antwerp. The fortress was built during World War I. I don’t know what purpose it served then, but in the Second World War, during the short eighteen days of resistance by the Belgian Army in May of 1940, Breendonk was the last headquarters of King Leopold. Later, under German occupation, it became a kind of small concentration camp or, in the Rotwelsch of the Third Reich, a “reception camp.” Today it is a Belgian national museum.

At first glance, Fort Breendonk seems very old, almost as though it belonged to the remote past. Under the eternally gray and rainy skies of Flanders, its grassy domes and dark gray walls give it the look of a bleak engraving from the Franco-Prussian War. One thinks of Gravelotte and Sedan and has the feeling that the defeated Emperor Napoleon III is about to appear at one of the massive low gates, kepi in hand. Move closer, though, and this fleeting image from a bygone age will give way to a more familiar one: watchtowers rise along the trenches surrounding the fortress, encircled by barbed wire fences. The engraving from 1870 is suddenly gone, abruptly supplanted by gruesome photos from the world that David Rousset named L’Univers concentrationnaire. The curators of the national museum have left everything as it was between 1940 and 1944. The yellowed signs on the wall read: “Whoever goes past this point will be shot,” and the solemn monument of resistance in front of the fortress depicts a man forced to his knees but defiantly raising his head, which has conspicuously Slavic features.3 But visitors don’t need this cue to know where they are and what memories are called up there.

Pass through the main gate and soon you are standing in a room that was called the “business office,” though why it had that name is still a mystery.4 A picture of Heinrich Himmler on the wall, a swastika flag lying as a cloth over a long table, a couple of plain chairs. Business office. Everyone went about their own business, and here, the business was murder. Then there are the damp cellar-like corridors, faintly lit by the same thin, reddish light bulbs used back then, and prison cells sealed by wooden doors inches thick. Only after going through several heavy, barred gates do you come to the windowless vault. Iron tools lie scattered around. No cry can penetrate these walls. This is where it happened to me: torture.

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