Monday, January 4, 2010

Beers, Blizzards and Frites

After a four hour delay in Chicago and an hour delay at the luggage carousel (never again American Airlines), I finally arrived in Brussels. Right after the biggest snow storm of the year and the coldest day of 2009. Nice.

My friends Laura and Delphine surprised me up at the airport and then told me they were going to take me to do something "not so touristy". That was the understatement of the year. I'm not sure what I next expected to hear, but it certainly wasn't, "We're going to take you to a Concentration Camp." Definitely not what I was expecting.

As it turns out, they had had out of town visitors every week for a month and were sick of doing the expected touristy things, so they thought something different might be in order.

As they pointed out, it's part of American history too. And hey, I'm game for just about anything.

The camp we went to isn't one of the famous ones. It's called (Fort) Breendonk and is outside of Brussels (about halfway to Antwerp, which makes it about half an hour outside the city). Here is the description from Wikipedia.

"During World War II the fort was briefly used as the General Headquarters of King Leopold III, leading the Belgian armed forces. After his surrender to the Germans it was transformed into a concentration camp by the Nazis (primarily as a transit camp for transport to Auschwitz). It gained a grim reputation as a place of torture and interrogation of a wide variety of prisoners. Amongst those to be incarcerated there were the linguist Herman Liebaers, fencer Jacques Ochs, Communist Party of Belgium politician Bert Van Hoorick and anti-Nazi fascist Paul Hoornaert."

This is the photo for the parking lot of Breendonk.

Toto, I don't think we're in Kansas anymore.

I think this was one of the coldest days I've endured, and coming from Michigan, that's saying something. However, it added to the feel of the place, because you realized just how miserable and hopeless a place it was.

We did the audio tour and while not every stop was worth listening to, it really explained some things that I don't think we would have gotten a feel for otherwise. Including the gruesome torture room, where they would torture even women and leave the door open for others to hear to serve as a warning.

If you care to go, the address is Brandstraat 57, 2830 Willebroek,
Belgium. Open daily from 9:30 until 5:30 and costs 6 Euros (5 for students)

But it's not easy to find and we had to ask a few passer-bys (I don't think I've ever felt more like I was in a Monty Python sketch than when we had to stop the car to ask people building snowmen in their front yard with their children, "Excuse me, do you know where the concentration camp is?").

I felt a little off-kilter but no one seemed to think it was strange. They just pointed us on our way. BTW, outside of Brussels, everyone speaks Flemish. Since I was with native speakers 99% of the time, I didn't have to worry about seeking out English speakers since I quickly learned my Spanish skills were of no use in Belgium.

A picture of us before we went in to lighten the mood. Did I mention it was freezing that day??!!!

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