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Review: The Prisoners of Breendonk (Deem)

AUTHOR: James M. Deem
SERIES: none
PUBLICATION DATE: August 4, 2015
ISBN: 9780544096646
PAGES: 352
SOURCE: NetGalley
GENRE: narrative nonfiction

SUMMARY: Belgium, 1940. Breendonk Prison, a “reception” camp for Nazi prisoners until they were either released or transferred, was never officially called a concentration camp. This book tells the stories of Breendonk, its soldiers, its history, and its prisoners.

REVIEW: I had to read this one in small chunks because it is so sad and horrible what happened to the prisoners at Breendonk. I toggled my reading with a fantasy romance, which I think helped me get as far as I did in the book. Like the author, I had also not previously heard of Breendonk. It is not as famous as, say, Auschwitz or Bergen-Belsen or Dachau. The stories are well-written and emotional, and reading about Breendonk will take its toll. This is not a happy book.

It was so difficult to read this one that I had to stop around halfway through. I decided to call it quits after waking up in the middle of the night and having a hard time going back to sleep. I just couldn’t stop thinking about Breendonk and its bathrooms and what it must have smelled like and how real people dropped dead from exhaustion and starvation. I’m truly not a very emotionally sensitive person–it really takes a lot for me to get emotional–so I would think people who are more sensitive would really struggle with what happened at Breendonk.

This book is well-written and emotionally raw. The author clearly cares about his topic and has thoroughly researched Breendonk and the many people who worked, lived, and died there. Deem has done such a fantastic job writing these stories that I just could not read one more page. I couldn’t even read about Breendonk, but real people actually lived these situations.


  • ENGLISH LANGUAGE ARTS: companion to units on The Holocaust and The Diary of Anne Frank
  • SOCIAL STUDIES/HISTORY/HUMANITIES: Discuss the history of Breendonk prior to its becoming a reception camp. How was its location and physical surroundings important to the camp’s protection from outside forces? Why do students think the prisoners had to uncover Breendonk’s camouflage all day long?
  • ART: Some critics believe Breendonk artist Jacques Ochs harbored anti-Semitic feelings and that those feelings came out in his drawings. How do Jacques Ochs’ drawings of Breendonk guards and prisoners show (or not show) his anti-Jewish views?

THE BOTTOM LINE: An important and emotional glimpse into the people and families affected by the horrors at Breendonk. Most pages include photos, illustrations, and/or maps. Well-written, thoroughly researched, and incredibly sad.

STATUS IN MY LIBRARY: On order. An excellent addition to any HS Holocaust collection.

READALIKES: Night (Wiesel); Terezin: Voices from the Holocaust (Thomson)

Presentation and layout: 5/5–clean layout with photos, illustrations, or maps on nearly every page

Quality of information: 5/5–well-researched and emotional

Photos/illustrations: 5/5–high-quality photos from the actual time period

Documentation of sources: 5/5–among the most thoroughly researched and documented narrative nonfiction I’ve seen. Includes detailed 5-page bibliography.
Front and back matter: 5/5–contains Author’s Note describing his experience touring Breendonk, Afterward (what happened to Breendonk prisoners/families after 1945), list of deportations (including number of survivors), quotation sources organized by chapter, extensive bibliography, Acknowledgments, illustration credits, index

Engrossing: 5/5–Well-written and easy to follow, but it’s an emotionally difficult read. I had to read it in small segments over several days because it was so sad. About halfway through, I could not read any more–it was taking too great an emotional toll on me.

Writing: 5/5–The writer clearly has an emotional connection with what happened at Breendonk. Easy to follow the stories and, at times, difficult to put down.

Appeal to target audience: 5/5–Student and adult readers will find this story emotional and informative.

Appropriate length: 3/5–352 pages–very interesting but for me, too long and detailed. It was overwhelming.

CONTENT: This book is very emotional and not recommended for readers younger than age 13.

  • Language: none
  • Sexuality: none
  • Violence: very high–stories of abuse, torture, murder
  • Drugs/Alcohol: cigarettes
  • Other: none

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