- The Washington Times - Saturday, July 26, 2003

MECHELEN, Belgium — David Verbeeck, a young Belgian actor, was searching for material about his family for a theater piece. But almost everyone had died in Auschwitz, and there was little left to tell him who they were or what they looked like.

Then he stumbled on a long-lost treasure — his Russian-born great-grandmother’s Belgian identity card, complete with a small black-and-white head shot.

“This was so huge,” he says.

“This old woman — she must have been 78 — with the star and the big mark [on the card] saying ‘Jew’ — it was really mind-boggling. Here I had the only thing that was left of this woman. In my wildest dreams I never thought I’d have something like that.”

Mr. Verbeeck is not alone.

About 3,000 envelopes containing documents belonging to Belgian Jews deported to Auschwitz — whatever they had in their pockets before being loaded onto trains — are being painstakingly opened, digitally copied, cataloged and preserved by archivists at the Jewish Museum of Deportation in Mechelen.

The project, which began in June, is part of a broader and, many say, overdue reassessment of what happened to the 56,000 Jews registered in Belgium when the Nazis invaded in 1940 — and what role Belgians played in the Holocaust.

“It’s a question now of truth more than justice,” said Judith Kronfeld, director of the Central Committee of Jewish Organizations in Belgium.

“Everything happened a long time ago, and most of the people who were involved in those matters are dead. So now it’s easier to begin the research and to know what happened.”

Official concern about the increasing electoral appeal of nationalist anti-immigrant parties is spurring the efforts. Although stronger in Flanders, Belgium’s Dutch-speaking northern half, the trend holds across the country of 10 million people.

The Flemish Bloc in Flanders and the National Front in French-speaking Wallonia usually direct their anger at the hundreds of thousands of relatively recent Muslim immigrants. But Belgium’s Jews, estimated at 40,000, worry, too.

“I think that they consider us ‘adapted,’” said Nathan Ramet, a Holocaust survivor and president of the Jewish museum. “But they are for ‘Blut and Boden’ — blood and soil. That was the same mentality as the pro-Nazis had before the war.”

In the national elections May 18, the Flemish Bloc won almost 12 percent of the vote in Flanders, its best result in 25 years. It holds 18 seats in the 150-seat lower house of parliament but is ignored by the mainstream parties.

The Flemish Bloc got 30 percent of the vote in Antwerp — the main city of Flanders, the world’s diamond-trading capital, which also has a highly visible Jewish community.

In Wallonia, the National Front won its first parliament seat ever.

“Indirectly, the growing success of the extreme right is responsible for demands for historical truth about what happened in the war,” said Rudi Van Doorslaer, senior researcher at the Ceges/Soma institute, which is doing much of the state-funded work.

“It can’t hurt to confront above all the younger generation with the history of their community.”

Following similar initiatives in Switzerland, Germany and elsewhere, the Belgian government and banks last year agreed to pay more than $100 million in compensation for Jewish property plundered or abandoned during the war years. That money has yet to be distributed, as the deadline for claims has been extended until Sept. 9.

Prime Minister Guy Verhofstadt also promised an independent inquiry into the attitudes and role of Belgian authorities in Nazi atrocities against Jews. King Leopold III stayed in place during the 1940-44 occupation, as did much of the civil service. The government fled to London.

In April, Parliament voted to grant historians access to classified government archives, including files regarding military justice, state security, the government-in-exile and postwar repression of collaborators, especially in Flanders.

The two-year project should begin in January once the budget is settled, said Mr. Van Doorslaer, who will lead the team.

According to official figures, about half of the Jews in Belgium in 1940 escaped the Holocaust, most by emigrating or going into hiding, aided by non-Jews in either case. Of the 25,267 Jews sent to Auschwitz, 1,207 survived.

Those rounded up were held at the Dossin barracks in Mechelen, about 12 miles north of Brussels, before being loaded onto trains.

Helping the Nazis were many Germanic-descended Flemish nationalists, won over by Adolf Hitler’s promise to make Flanders an independent Nazi region.

Authorities in Antwerp willingly distributed Star of David badges to Jews, while those in French-speaking Brussels, the other center of Jewish population, refused, according to a recent inquiry that accompanied the compensation deal.

Antwerp police also collaborated in interning and arresting Belgian Jews, the inquiry noted.

After liberation, many Belgians were happy to bury the memory of the war years. Although a camp for political prisoners just down the road from Dossin barracks was declared a national memorial in 1947, little attention was paid to the fate of the Jews.

Only in 1996 did the small, privately run Jewish Museum of Deportation open in a wing of the barracks, known to survivors as the “antechamber of death.”

The Flemish regional government, which pays the museum’s $460,000 annual operating costs, is planning a bigger, $31 million Holocaust museum across the street by 2009.

The “mini-museum” already stores some archives kept by the Nazis and their puppet Jewish council, which acted as an intermediary between the government and individual Jews.

“This is a difficult issue — Jews working inside the Nazi plan,” said the museum’s director, Ward Adriaens. “Some worked with the resistance; some took care only of themselves. One guy shot himself in the head when he realized what he was doing.”

It was a Jewish secretary doing intake at the Dossin barracks who started keeping the personal documents taken from Jews in April 1943, when the Nazis began rounding up Belgian citizens, Mr. Adriaens said. Those deported earlier were mainly Jewish immigrants from Eastern Europe and recent refugees from Hitler’s Third Reich.

The documents, stuffed into decaying manila envelopes, pertain to about 4,000 victims — “peanuts compared to Poland, for example,” Mr. Adriaens said. “But because it’s so complete, it’s of more importance than the number of people.”

The museum is digitally archiving the papers, and beginning in September descendants will be able to claim the yellowing originals, which are stored in a climate-controlled room.

Other digitized records have been shared with Yad Vashem, the memorial to the Holocaust in Jerusalem, the museum at Auschwitz in Poland and the Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington.

Already, pleas for documents are pouring in.

“People are most interested in pictures or ID cards, because most of the time they have no souvenir of the person, no face they can remember,” said Laurence Schram as she and an assistant went through the documents.

“It’s very emotional. One woman wrote, ‘I would fall to my knees in gratitude for any document concerning my father.’ Unfortunately, there was nothing on him.”

Some envelopes are thin. Others are stuffed with papers such as those belonging to Abram Akerman, a fresh-faced baker’s apprentice, born in Warsaw in 1918. He was carrying his marriage book and a rationing card and vaccination certificate for his 1-year-old daughter, Pauline.

The mother of Mr. Verbeeck, the young actor, was 7 when her father hid her with Belgian farmers and fled to Britain. Now he has received digital scans of a fake passport belonging to her uncle, medical papers saying he couldn’t work because of a heart condition, letters from a woman who borrowed a stove, addresses of Jewish acquaintances in New York.

“They’re documents without any value, but with which you can make up a story about these people’s condition, their health, where they lived, who they knew,” he said. “For me it’s just important to have them. It’s part of my history, my family. I treasure it.”

Further information is available on the Internet at the Jewish Museum of Deportation and the Resistance: www.cicb.be, the Belgian Center for Historical Research and Documentation on War and Contemporary Society: www.cegesoma.be, and the Belgian compensation fund: https://premier.fgov.be (click on Welcome, then Indemnification Commission).


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