|The Shoah in Belgium|
|By Roland S. Süssmann|
As against France, Belgium has never officially acknowledged its responsibility and culpability in the murder of almost 50% of its Jewish population during the Second World War. This perhaps explains why the first and only museum of the Shoah only opened in this country more than 50 years after the Liberation. Yet there is no doubt that this memorial is worth a journey.
A visit to a memorial or a museum of the Shoah is always more moving and more intense when it is located at one of the places where the horror of European anti-Semitism took concrete form. Such is the case of the Jewish Museum of Deportation and Resistance in Mechelen, created on the very site of the transit camp from where, between 4 August 1942 and 31 July 1944, 28 convoys left for Auschwitz. Six of these transports stopped at Kozel, 140 km from Auschwitz, where 815 of the deportees, aged 15 to 50, were made to carry out concentration camp style forced labor: they were worked to death. At Malines the living and hygienic conditions were appalling, the ill treatment and violence depending on how drunk the jailers were.
The Museum occupies one wing of the old Dossin de Saint Georges barracks. There, halfway between Brussels and Antwerp, the Nazis and their Belgian accomplices set up the “SS-Sammellager Mecheln”, the assembly center for the deportation of the Jews of Belgium. Two-thirds of Belgium’s Jews were gassed on arrival at Auschwitz. 16,100 people went straight from the trains to the gas chambers. Of the remaining third, only 1,207 were still alive when the camps were liberated.
What was special about the history of the Shoah in Belgium was that the process, which led to the deportation of 25,257 Jews (of whom 5,430 were children, 150 under two years old), was slow but gradual and remarkably well planned. To talk about it, we met WARD ADRIAENS, Director of the Jewish Museum of Deportation and Resistance located in Mechelen.
Despite the small amount of space the museum has (surprising when you consider that three-quarters of the barracks was converted into luxury apartments and municipal archives), the exhibition is remarkably well done, well researched and informative. It offers an interesting lesson to both the visitor who knows something about the history of the Shoah and the complete novice. The Museum has two aspects: the history of the Final Solution in Europe and the specific case of Belgium. It has several themes: the help the Germans received in Belgium, both from society and from state institutions, the collaboration of the extreme right, the extermination of almost half Belgian Jewry, resistance, and the help afforded by a large part of the Belgian population, especially in saving children.
But before listening to Mr. Adriaens, let us recall a few key dates: in 1940 there were 56,000 Jews in Belgium; on 10 May 1940 Belgium was occupied by Nazi Germany; 19 April 1941 there were pogroms in Antwerp; 27 May 1942 the order was issued to wear the yellow star; on 4 August 1942 the deportations began to Auschwitz.
In a few words, could you retrace for us the history of the museum you run and tell us how it was founded?
It was at the initiative of the Union of Deported Jews of Belgium and the Central Jewish Consistoire (the country’s umbrella Jewish organization) that this memorial was founded in 1990 and inaugurated on 7 May 1995 by King Albert II as part of the celebration of the 50th anniversary of the Liberation. I should emphasize that the federal government, the Flemish community, the province of Antwerp and the town of Malines all supported this project. The museum opened to the public on 12 November 1996. The historian Maxime Steinberg wrote the museum’s scenario, the museum designer Paul Vandebotermet was responsible for the layout and Jacques Zajtman is the architect. This museum presents a synthesis of racial persecution (of Jews and gypsies alike) in Belgium and northern France as far down as Calais during the Second World War. For lack of space we had to reduce this synthesis to a minimum and keep to the strict essentials. The educational formula to which this historical museum was designed can be divided into two parts: chronological and thematic. A visit lasts on average an hour and a half and is guided. We get about 30,000 visitors a year, of whom about 80% are high school students. About 45% of these young people come from the French-speaking part of Belgium. Each class is laid out like in school with the guide taking the place of the teacher, and by the time the students leave the place they know the history of racial prejudice and how it operated. Naturally, this visit is part of a wider course that is taught in school both before and after. We have about twenty guides, all volunteers and teachers, whom we have trained. When I stress that we are above all an historical museum, it is because I try to bring out the facts and the methods of persecution in Belgium rather than emotions. The museum was designed with this in mind and pictures of murders come only at the end of the exhibition. We wanted to show that as against the countries in the East, the exclusion of Jewish society, its isolation and finally its deportation were programmed in a very gradual way. This descent into hell is recounted over almost two-thirds of the exhibition. It starts with a very strong, clear and frightening message that tells the visitor, “Persecution starts with the segregation and punishment of those who have the wrong mother”. Everyone understands that thought. This is all the more important since we get here children who live in North African areas or from extreme right wing circles, two groups who have no friendship for the Jews. Yet we manage to get our message over.
On that score, what actually happened in Belgium?
Our work is on two levels: on the one hand, information and the exhibition for the public, and on the other hand management of our archives. We can prove and document everything we say from German archives that are in our possession. You should understand that we are in a unique position, since we have virtually all the documents written during the period of persecution. That is due to the fact that Belgium was liberated within a few days and those in charge did not have time to destroy the damning evidence. We are holding what is generally called “the Belgian case”, which is the expression, with supporting documents, of the systematic organization of the persecutions. This starts with the creation of a register of Jews, which extends to 212 files. These were created by the towns or by professionals, civil servants, who had available all the marriage, death and migration certificates etc. There were thus 56,000 names on the lists. This was also unique, because no other minority was registered in this way. No one knew who was a Protestant or a communist before the Second World War. These files have been conserved in their entirety and we are in the process of computerizing them. Then there are the lists that the German Kommandatur demanded regularly from the towns, and of which copies exist in the archives of towns and provinces. Then the Germans created the Judenrat (the Jewish Council). There a third register was created, since the Germans required every Jew to register as a member of the Judenrat. This register is very important as it was arranged by household and home. Heads of families, each member of the family and even Jewish maids from Eastern Europe were thus listed. Based on this data the Gestapo’s Sicherheitsdienst (SD) created their files, which took up ten square meters of metallic filing cabinets. Every person had a description sheet, to which was added other documents from other registers, so that slowly but surely a small file was prepared on each Jew. In this way, for example, in 1941 3,000 Jews from Germany living in Antwerp were expelled to Limbourg. On that occasion every person was documented with their photograph. Then, at some point the authorities changed their minds and sent them all back to Antwerp. The record created for the occasion was then added to the SD’s file. I am going to mention something parenthetically about the Limbourg affair. It was the poorest province in the country. Suddenly these villages saw entire Jewish families disembarking, whom no one knew what to do with and who urgently needed to be lodged and fed. They were crammed into schools, abandoned buildings and other places. In addition, a forced labor camp was set up at Oberfeld, where 300 of them were made to clear the land to dig water drainage ditches But this option was abandoned and the Jews were able to return to their homes, where most found their apartments again. The large-scale pillage of Jewish assets had not yet begun.
Getting back to the systematic registration of the Jews, I can say that not only were all known, but also sociologically it had been established that 93% of them were not of Belgian origin. Most had come from Eastern Europe in various waves. There was among them a small fringe from the middle class, some of whom had come from Switzerland after the French Revolution. There were businessmen and bankers and in all represented only a dozen families. A large part of the 56,000 people recorded were Jews who had fled Tsarist Russia in the 1920’s, 40% had Polish nationality and about 12,000 had come from Nazi Germany during the 1930’s. Most were therefore poor. In this respect it is interesting to note that when we receive young people of North African extraction here and we talk to them about the migration of the Jews from the countries of Eastern Europe to Belgium, they are able to identify with them, because they too are immigrants. They discover a bit of their own history.
As I told you, the Jews were thus known and documented, and armed with this tool the arrests and deportations were organized and carried out. One last list was made at the time the convoys left, the notorious “Transportliste”. At the time of defeat, the Germans took these records with them, but for some unknown reason they abandoned them without destroying them. They were found by chance and saved. We know that the 25,000 people deported passed through Mechelen, because on arriving here each one was recorded on a Transportliste. When there were enough people a train was ordered for a transport. Dispatching was done like for cattle. The original list went with the train and the copy remained here. In this respect there is one specific issue that I must stress. The administrative dehumanization process started right here in the transit camp. Each file had added to it prisoners’ personal items, such as for example their identity card, their membership card to some organization, a train season ticket in their own name etc. That is to say, when they were put on the trains their identity had been recorded on a list but they themselves had already been deprived of any form of official identification. These documents are today in our archives. It is also important to know that the total dispossession of the deportees’ property and identity was an essential stage in the Final Solution. At Mechelen, on his arrival each prisoner passed before the tables where, after his identity papers and other belongings had been confiscated, he received a card with his serial number in the convoy. Joseph Hakker recalls what happened next: “A voice gave the order to put everything we had on into a hat and said we could not keep anything”. The SS Max Boden then checked what everyone had put together. Before finishing the pillage the SS men at Mechelen made sure the prisoners were hiding nothing. A body search completed the operation, accompanied by blows, slaps and blows with riding crops, and Dr. Krull took a perverse pleasure in pouring eau de Cologne in the eyes. If someone had hidden something between the seams of a garment, he was stripped and beaten to a bloody pulp in front of everyone.
How come these archives are still intact?
A few days before the liberators arrived, the commander of the Mechelen transit camp ordered the person in charge of the heating and showers to burn the files bearing the names of the deportees. The one given the job did not carry out the order, and in that way the lists were saved. Today they are in our museum’s archives. We have two types of lists: that of the pillage of assets, which led to the creation of fictitious management companies, and that of stolen furniture that was sent to Germany. To end this short description, I would add that about 8,000 of the 56,000 Jews documented left for France at the beginning of the war. Most were arrested and transferred to Drancy, before being deported to Auschwitz. Collaboration between the German, French and Belgian police was such that the arrest in France of people coming from Belgium was automatically informed to the administrators of the records in Belgium.
Is a visit to your museum part of the official school syllabus?
No, but history lessons and a few hours on the Second World War and racial persecution are provided. Since the schools are independent, the State cannot compel but only suggest this type of visit. The fact is that at the initiative of schools, principals and teachers, high school classes come back year after year. At this point our visits program is full for the year, but that’s only because of our lack of space. That is the reason we are unable to have an area on the camp guards, their psychology, their misdeeds and their fate. The only mention is that of the camp commander, Phillip Schmitt, was shot. He was the last person condemned to death to have been executed after the war. He was sentenced for his acts of violence at the labor camp and for torture at Fort Breendonk.
What happened there?
41,257 Belgian citizens have been recognized as political prisoners, 13,958 of them posthumously. Most were members of the Resistance. At the camp at Breendonk, in addition to forced labor, torture was completely common. In addition, 164 inmates were shot, 21 hung and 108 executed elsewhere. At least 98 were beaten to death, drowned, starved and tortured. From that camp 2,230 prisoners were deported to German concentration camps and deportation camps.
How do you see the future of your institution?
I do not believe we can grow in terms of the exhibition itself. We shall continue computerizing the archives and in particular extend spreading our message to the youth, so that they know what really happened and make them aware of where racial prejudice can lead.
In a short article it is impossible to relate the list of horrors, the violence and sufferings the prisoners suffered in what historians have called “the antechamber of death”, which is what the Mechelen transit camp truly was. Yet one can still be astonished that in the educational guide book meant for schools, the following appears, “The museum does not seek to inspire pro-Jewish feelings (underlined)”, and a bit further on “the number of Germans who were really responsible is difficult to estimate. We do not subscribe to the idea of a collective German failure”. It is wrapped up with a few, well-meaning words about the dangers of racism etc. Recently a survivor told me, “Let us never forget that anti-Semitism was not a German invention, but the Final Solution and Auschwitz were!”
Solidarity and Resistance
Friendship and solidarity, those were the watchwords that motivated every action of Maurice Lachmann, a former member of the Resistance and deportee. It is impossible to summarize his life in a single article, since his combat was long and difficult. As to anecdotes that are merely factual though dramatic, they could fill several books. Maurice Lachmann was born in Lodz, Poland, and his parents moved to Belgium when he was only four years old. He was among the very first young Jews who from 1941 joined the ranks of the Resistance, where he took part in many actions against the Germans and their Belgian accomplices. Very young, he was politically active in the struggle against the extreme right, which very quickly collaborated with National Socialism. He was arrested by the Gestapo, tortured and deported to Auschwitz, where he was a member of the passive resistance groups within the camp, doing everything to reduce the sufferings of other prisoners in his immediate vicinity. Made to join the Death March, Maurice Lachmann was then transferred to the terrible Ebbensee forced labor camp in Austria, from which he finally escaped.
Today, despite his advanced age, Mr. Lachmann continues to fight the Far Right. He visits schools and colleges to spread his testimony and to warn against the excesses of racism and anti-Semitism. To this end he has made 27 trips to Auschwitz with young Jews and non-Jews.
To the question of how a man like him, who has seen what must be supposed be the most terrible and evil that man can do to man, assesses the situation in Belgium in respect of the rebirth of anti-Semitism today, he memorably told us, “I am not surprised by what is happening now. In my time, the extreme right was led by Leon Degrelle, who knew how to convince the youth. Unfortunately, I failed in two attacks on him. The extreme right has always dwelt in the shadows, but is always there. Today it is making itself heard again, and that is falling on fertile ground. But in my opinion, the struggle against anti-Semitism involves first and foremost understanding, unity and friendship among Jews… It is not yet won!”