There were about 90,000-100,000 Jews in Belgium at the time World War II broken out in Europe, many were foreign Jews that had already fled the NAZIS from their own countries. During the first months of the occupation, thousands of Jews, especially foreign Jews, fled from Belgium or were deported to neighboring France. As a result, as of late 1940 about 52,000-55,000 Jews remained in Belgium. Hitler apparently had no marked plans for Belgium in the NAZI "New Order" in Europe. This thus had a marked effect on the administration that the Germans established in Belgium. NAZI suppression of Jews in Belgium followed a familar pattern. The NAZIs issued the first anti-Jewish measures in the Fall 1940. These measures suceeded in robbing Belgian Jews of their property. Inpoverished and concentrated it cities, they were now ready for the next step, transport east and the death camps. The killing of Dutch, Belgian, and French Jews began in July 1942 when the NAZI death camps in occupied Poland became fully operational. Most accounts suggest that the NAZI anti-Semetic campaign which began soon after the occupation had little impact on most Belgians. It was virtually impossible to contront the NAZIs openly. Many Belgians, however, quierly and effectively opposed the NAZIs quiettly and effectively. One author explain that it was these "slent rebels" that saved many Belgian Jews. Belgian clerics were some of the most effective in Europe in helping to rescue the country's Jewish population. The most notable cleric was Father Bruno who saved hundreds of children. There was only so much the Resistance could do in Belgium. Unlike Denmark there was no easy to get to sanctuary. The English Channel and North Sea is difficult waters. mined, and heavily patrolled by the Germans. The NAZIs succeeded in killing about 25,000 Jews who were living in Belgium. Here accounts vary. Some are as high as 40,000. Only 1,271 survived and retuned after the War. Despite the appaling total, the number of Jews saved is a testimony to the support of the Belgian people to their non-Jewish countrymen.
Very little is known about Belgian Jews in the early medieval era, but as in other European countries, they were severely repressed during the later medieval era. During this period Belgian Jews were expelled or killed. Gradually Jews began returing to Belgium as the country entered the modern era. Antwerp became a center in northern Europe for the Renaissance and thriving economic activity that transformned Medieval Europe. Jews played a major role in this transition. Belgium had a much smaller Jewish population than the neighboring Netherlands, because the Spanish had supressed the Protestant revolt in the 16th century and expelled the Jews again. The legal situation of Jews began to change with the French Revolution and Belgian Jews were subsequently emancipated.While the country had only a small Jewish population, quite a number of German and other European Jews in the years before the World war II sought refuge in Belgium.
Germany launched World War I by invading Belgium in an effort to comquer France. The valliant resistance of the Belgian Army under King Albert I slowed the German advance making possible the Mirravle on the Marne that saved France. Germany nonrtheless occupied almost all of Belgium and held Belgium until the last weeks of the War when Allied offensives forced the Germany Army began a general retreat in at the end of the War. Jews at the time were fully enancipated in Germany and no actions were taken against Belgian Jews. The German Army seized food supplies. Had in not been for a humanitarin relief effort organized by the United States, large numbers of Belgian civilians would have starved.
There were about 90,000-100,000 Jews in Belgium at the time World War II broken out in Europe. There are no precise accounts because Government officials did not conduct a Census by religious affiliation. In additioinal many Jews were assimilated complicating any account. There were also illegal alliens fleeing NAZI persecution. Jews had immigrated from Germany size the NAZIs seized power (1933). The Anschluss in Austria brough a new wave of refugees (1938). It is believed that half or more were foreign Jews. The two largest communities were in Antwerp (55,000) and Brussels (35,000). There were several smaller communities in Ghent, Liege, Arlon, Charleroi, Mons, Namur, and and Oostende. The Jewish population had been significantly increased by repressive German laws and extra-legal violence designed to drive Jews out of Germany. There were an estimated 20,000 German refugees and many thousands of others attempting to get visas to emmigtate to the United States and other countries. During the first months of the occupation, thousands of Jews, especially foreign Jews, fled from Belgium or were deported to neighboring France. As a result, as of late 1940 about 52,000-55,000 Jews remained in Belgium. [Hilberg, p. 601]
A HBC reader tells us, "I was at the Marneffe refugee camp near Malines as a child (1939-40). I never thought of it as a camp...it was and still is, an estate of several buildings, which at that time were more for residential purposes. We ran from the Germans after they invaded Belgium (May 1940). I went back to visit. Malines is now apartments and Marneffe ironically, a prison." [Rotmil] The refugees organized life at the camp. Charles has pleasant memories with his family at the camp before the German invasion.
The opening of the long anticipated NAZI Western offensive fell first on the Netherlands and Belgium (May 10). Leopold III took personal command of the Belgian Army. German seizure of important forts allowed the Panzers to pour into Belgium. King Lepold's surrender of the Belgian Army complicated the evacuation of the British Expeditionary Force at Dunkirk. The dogged resistance of the First French army, however, made the evacuation posdsible. This was a critical achievemrent. Had the BEF been forced to surrender, almost surely Britian would have had to capitulate to the NAZIs. King Leopold honoring a pledge to his soldiers, surrendered to the NAZIs rather than fleeing to Britain.
After King Leopold III surrendered (May 28), the NAZIs placed under military rule. Hitler apparently had no marked plans for Belgium in the NAZI "New Order" in Europe. The NAZIs clearly planned to add the Netherlands to the Reich. Plans for Belgium were ot yet thought out. This thus had a marked effect on the administration that the Germans established in Belgium. The Germn military government was headed by General Alexander von Falkenhausen. He maintained the used the existing civil service. [Robinson] Von Falkenhausen unlike the officials in charge of the occupation of several other countries was not a NAZI committed to the Holocaust. He was a stiff-necked Prussian aristocrat who held the NAZIs in contempt. [Scrreiber] Like many German patriots, he wrestled with his duty as a German. Unable to openly oppose the NAZIs, his less than enthusiatic support was a factor in why so many Jews survived. Eichmann's representative was Kurt Asche. Wile there were heros there were also villans who aided Asche. Icek Glogowski betrayed many Jews to Asche.
The Belgian cabinet fled to London, where it formed a government-in-exile. They wanted King Leopold to accompany them, but he elected to stay with his defeated soldiers. He had made this pledge during the War and felt honor-bound to keep to his word. His family which had escaped to southern France elected to rejoin the King in occupied Belgium.
The Belgian Goverment including cabinent ministers, unlike King Leopold, had fled the country when the Germans invaded and formed a government-in-exile in London. The higest ranking officials remaining in Belgium were caninent secretaries, rather like permanent secretaries in Britain. The NAZI occupation authorities did not replace, but used the existing Belgian government to run the country. They demanded collaboration, but using the Belgian government meant that some authority remained in the hands of Belgian officials. A study commissioned by the Belgian Government concluded, "In general, it can be said that the Belgians sacrificed the Jewish community to try to preserve 'normality' and the orderly functioning of the economy. The Belgians were very much influenced by the experience of World War I, but they did not take into account the fact that in the second war, the occupation was of a political nature. In World War II the German occupation of Belgium had Nazi and racist characteristics with regard to part of the population, which had not been the case in the First World War." [Van Doorslaer] For many years the Belgians like other Europeans avoided the question of collaboration in general and the role of Belgian officials in the Holocaust specifically. An assessment commissioned by the Belgian Government concluded, "The Belgian state adopted an obedient approach, and collaborated in a manner unbefitting a democratic country, in various but critical areas, in a devastating policy toward the Jewish population." [Van Doorslaer]
The critical step for the NAZI authorities was to obtain a registry of Belgian Jews. There was at the time of occupation no listing of Belgian citizens or residents by religion.
The German occupation authrities ordered Belgian authorities to register all Jews in the country.
This flagarantly violated the Belgian Constitution. It clearly descriminated Belgian citizens by religion. It also violated international law--namely The Hague Convention [Van Doorslaer] The Convention provided that"family honor and rights, the lives of persons, and private property, as well as religious convictions and practice, must be respected" by an occupying power.
Belgian officials were unsure how to respond to the NAZI order. [Van Doorslaer] Belgian officials after legal consultations decided to comply with NAZI demands and to proceed with a registration. The officials involved appear to have viewed themselves as "passive intermediaries". [Van Doorslaer]
It is easy today to castigate the undividuals involved. The Belgian officials were in a very difficult position. It looked to many as if the Germans had won the War. At the time only Britain was left gto fight and NAZI power on the Continent seemed overwealming. Most officials must had felt that they had to accept German control. Thus for the welfare of the Belgian population it was generally seen that it was best to cooperate with German officials. As bad as the occupation was, it could have been much worst. Yet these officials had an obligation to follow Belgian law. And there is no indication that the NAZIs would have arrested them if they had refused. They may have lost their jobs or been forced to resign. Its difficult to judge individual motivation. Active anti-Semitism does not seem to have been a major factor, but officials seem to have felt that protecting Jews, most of whom were foreign, was not an critical matter. From the registration all further NAZI actions flowed.
NAZI suppression of Jews in Belgium followed a familar pattern. The basic objective was to separate Jews from the rest of the population. The NAZIs issued the first anti-Jewish measures in the Fall 1940. As in several other countries, the first of these measures prohibitied ritual slaughter and other Jewish religious rites. The NAZIs gradually enacted increasingly severe mesurs. The NAZis begin the registration of Jewish property (October 18, 1940). Authorities fired Jews holding government posts (December 1940). the Nazis banned Jews from professions, including law and education. The NAZIS next began seizing Jewish property (1941). Curfews wee declared for Jews. Belgian Jews lived mostly in cities, but regulations forced Jew in rural areas and small towns to move to the major cities with Jewish communities. The NAZIs next required Jews to wear yellow badges so they could be easily identified (May 27, 1942). A similar orde was issued in occupied France on the same day. These measures suceeded in robbing Belgian Jews of their property. Inpoverished and concentrated it cities, they were now ready for the next step, transport east and the death camps. The Belgian internal affairs secretary-general ordered the word "Jew" added to identifying documents (July 1941). A Belgian Government assessment concluded, " That as a result of this action, "the transition from passive collaboration to active collaboration was accomplished with great rapidity." Authorities declared illegal textbooks that had been edited by Jews (October 1941). Next authorities , the authorities expelled Jewish children from Belgian schools (December 1941). Authorities banned Jewish doctors from practicing their profession (June 1942).
Princess Elisabeth of Bavaria was born (1876). She was the daughter of Karl-Theodor, Duke in Bavaria and Maria Josepha of Portugal. She was named in honor of her father's sister, the Empress of Austria. Elisabeth married Prince Albert, the future Albert I, King of the Belgians (1900) They went on to have two sons and a daughter. Elizabeth became Queen upon her husband’s accession (1909). The Germans occupied most of Belgium when they invaded, launching World War I (1914). Albert and Elizabeth lived in De Panne, in the small area of Belgium that the Germans were unable to occupy. Queen Elizabeth strongly supported the war effort and troops, often visited the Belgian sildiers in the trenches. She became enormosly popular even though she was born in Germany. King Albert I died in an accident making her a widow (1934). Her eldest son, Leopold, succeeded him on the throne. Not only was Elizabeth popular in Belgium, but the Germans respected here. And the German occupation authorities was a Wehrmacht officer, not a NAZI fanatic as in the Nethelands. Queen Elizabeth used her influence to rescue hundreds of Jewish children from deportation. This was something foebwhich anyone else might get arrested. She also had contacts with the Italian royal family her daughter had married into and the Red Cross. She used these contacts she sunbitted a direct request to Hitler to cease the deportation of bekgian Jews. She was a commitment that Jews with Belgian citizenship would neither be deported or separated from their families. The problem was that most Jews in Belgium were not citizens. And those that had been arrested in Mechelen (a transit camp) would be allowed to receive visitors. The Germans did not keep their promose. When the Germans arrested children in the Wezembeek orphanage, Elisabeth intervened and the children were was released. She visited a hospital, the Germans allowed 80 Jewish sick and elderly to remain (1943). The same year the Jews imprisoned at Mechelen were finally released. During Operation Iltis many Belgian Jews were rounded up and deported (September 1943). Thus was conducted by the Reich Main Security Office (RSHA) which she was powerless to stop. No other European royal has a comparable record of intervention> She has been recognised by Yad Vashem as Righteous Among The Nations.
The next step was rounding up the Jews who had already been concentrated by previous actions for transpoert east. Belgian authorities collabotated with the NAZIs, but to varying degrees. There was a marked difference between authorities in Antwerp and Brussels, the two major Belgian cities and where Jews were concentrated. Even before the War, most Belgian Jews lived in those two cities, but the NAZIs forced Jews libing in smaller towns and cities into areas of these two cities. The Brussels police did not participate in the roundups as well as the subsequent deportation. The Antwerp police, however, worked cloesly with NAZI authorities to roundup Jews in the city. The Antwerp police helped close off streets. One of the three deportations was entirely a Antwerp police operation (August 28-29, 1942). The Antwerp police on this occassion detained 1,243 Jews and sent to the NAZI death camps. The difference between Brussels and Antwerp is not all together clear. It seems less due to anti-Semetic feelings than pre-War (and continuing) Belgian ethnic and political divisions. The Flemish who dominated Antwerp felt decriminated against by Waloon dominated Beligan officials. They were thus less hostile to the German seeing them as potentially more sympathetic to their cause. There was thus more collaboration in Flanders than in Walonia. The Waloons in Brussels, however, were more stridently patriotic and loyal to the Belgian Government and thus more hostile to the Germans. [Van Doorslaer]
The killing of Dutch, Belgian and French Jews began when the death camps in Poland became fully operational (July 1942). The NAZIs began widesped roundups for deportation (September 1942). Most of the trnsports went directly to Auschwitz. Here the elderly and children were gassed upon arrival. The healthy men and unaccompained women were used for slave labor, but very few Belgian Jews survived Auschwitz and the other camps. While most went directly to Auschwitz, smaller numbers were sent to the Lodz ghetto, Theresienstadt, Bergen-Belsen camp, and other camps. There are some reports of Belgian Jews being depoted to labor camps. [Deportation and Israelitisches] The NAZI goal by 1942 was clearly extermination. There was limited by the fact that the NAZI death camps had a horific, but limited capacity. There was also a desire to gain economic value from healthy Jews, thus there temporary use as slave labor and explains why most, but not all transports went directly to death camps.
As in other countries the NAZIs systematically divided the potential opposition. The first Jews deported were mostly foreign Jews. This was more acceptable to Belgians in general and Belgian Jews hoped that they might be spared. This was largely achieved in 1942. The German Foreign Office reported that some 15,000 Jews, mostly foreign Jews (Polish, Czech, German or Russian) had been deported from Belgium to "the East" (November 1942). [Longerich, pp. 263, 265.] Belgians worked with great courage to prevent deporment of Jews with Belgian citzenship. Cardinal van Roey and the country's Queen-Mother, Elizabeth,
were especially active. For a time the German military governor von Falkenhausen exempted, except for those who refused to wear the required Jewish star badge or who had committed other violations. [Dawidowicz, p. 494 and Rich pp. 187-188.] Queen Elizabeth also attempted interceed with Hitler. [Schreiber] The NAZIs later launched Operation "Iltis" (early September 1943). This involved rounding up Belgian Jews for deportation. The operation in Brussels was conducted by a special section of Belgian Judenrat (Association of Belgian Jews) under the supervision of the Feldgendarmerie (German police).
The NAZIs deported in all, 25,000-40,000 Jews from Belgium. The lower figure may be more correct. [Gilbert, p. 110 and Hilberg, pp. 606-608.] A few Jews were exempted from deportation. These were Jews that were citizens of the United States, Britain and the British dominions, or the Latin American countries. [Robinson]
The principal NAZI concentration camp in Belgium was Breendonck. It was primarily a internment camp. At frst it served as a place to intern alien Jews. Later it served as a collection point for Jews to be deported East. Conditions at the camp were very bad. One report estimates that 200 Jews were killed there every month. There were reports of a gassing unit where children were killed. [American Jewish Yearbook] Many scholars dismiss these accounts.
Many Belgians effectively resisted the German occupation and the Holocaust. The history of the Belgian Resistance is a study in great courage against the German military and collaboranists. One estimate suggests that about 200,000 Belgians were active in the Resistance. [Schreiber] Jews played a prominent role in the Belgian resistance effort.
Most accounts suggest that the NAZI anti-Semetic campaign which began soon after the occupation had little impact on most Belgians. It was virtually impossible to contront the NAZIs openly. Many Belgians, however, quierly and effectively opposed the NAZIs quiettly and effectively. One author explain that it was these "slent rebels" that saved many Belgian Jews. [Schreiber] The Belgians succeeded in saving more of their Jews than most other countries occupied by the Germans. In this effort the Ressistance played a major role. Belgium had an active Ressistance movement which succeeded in saving many Jews. Unlike some countries, many Belgians actively worked to save their Jewish countrymen. There was considerable anti-German feling in Belgium as a result of the German World War I occupation. The Ressistance was organized around the Belgian government in exile supported by the Belgian people still resentful of Germany's World war I population. The Catholic Church played a major role in the Ressistance and effort to save Jews. The German effort to anialate Belgian Jews was complicated from the beginning by difficulty in identifying Jews. The Constitution did not permit any mention of religion on civil documents. Thus there was no existing registry or easy method of identifying Belgian Jews. The NAZIs also found it difficult toget Belgians to assist in the process of identifying Jews. In addition, many Belgians help hde Jewish children. Many Belgian police officers refused to enforce the regulations forcing Jews to wear yellow badges. Officials in countless offices participated in small actions such as issuing ration cards under varios guises. Some times cards were issues for nephews or cousins which suddently appeared with few questions asked. Blank identification documents were provided. Postmen intercepted denumciation letters mailed to the Gestapo. In one notable act, the Resistance succeed in stopping a transport to Auschwitz (April 19, 1943). This is one of the few cases we know of where a transport to the death camps was stopped. Many stayed or were to frightened to leave the train, but 231 did escape and all but a handful survived. [Schreiber]
The NAZIs created a Jewish Council (Judenrat) to provide a way to effectively control Belgian Jews. The compliant Belgian Jewish Council largely cooperated with the NAZIs, believing that any show of defiance would encite even more savage acts. In reaction, Belgian Jews established the clandestine Committee for Jewish Defense (CJD) worked with the larger Resistance movement. They hid Jews, provided partisan fighters, forged identity papers and food ration tickets, and secured funds for a Jewish community largely impoverished by NAZI regulations. They also helped set up escape routes, primarily through France to Spain. The CJD also organized a cultural pogram. They distributed information, established a lending library after Jews were banned from libraries, and supported a Jewish press (printing in Yiddish, French and Flemish.
Belgian clerics were some of the most effective in Europe in helping to rescue the country's relatively small Jewish population. Jewish children in particular were hidden in various Catholic monasteries and schools throughout Belgium. The most notable cleric was Father Bruno who saved hundreds of children. One child hidden by Father Bruno, Flora Singer, remembers that her aunt could not bear to part with her baby cousin Nounou and refuse to allow him to be hidden. Flora's mother later came to her sister's apartment with food and found a seal on the door, "prpert of the Third Reich". Her mother managed to grab the family's photograph album--all that is left of them today. [Capps, p. C8.]
The Bild family were German Jews of Polish ancestry. The NAZIs deported them to Poland by the NAZIs before the War. They managed to reach Belgium and were interned by Belgian authorities. When the Germans invafded Belgium (May 1940), the family escaped and his in Brussels. They hid their little girth Ruth in a convent. The Bild family is an example of how the Germans Jews because they more fully understood the situation managed to evade the NAZIs better than the local Jews. Another example is the Goldstein family and their two little bots, Jack and Bobby. They were Austrian Jews who fled to Belgium after the Anchsluss. Another example of German/Austrian Jews who managed to survive in Belgium. There are also the castle children, although we do not yet have details on the story.
We do no normally note historic fiction, but N.M. Kelby's beautiful book In the Company of Angel's deals with events in a Belgian town on the French border.
There was only so much the Resistance could do in Belgium. Unlike Denmark there was no easy to get to sanctuary. The English Channel and North Sea is difficult waters. mined, and heavily patrolled by the Germans. The NAZIs succeeded in killing about 25,000 Jews who were living in Belgium. Here accounts vary. Some are as high as 40,000. Only 1,271 survived and retuned after the War. [de Cocatrix] Despite the appaling total, the number of Jews saved is a testimony to the support of the Belgian people to their non-Jewish countrymen. [Screiber]
After the War the Belgian Government put collaborators on trial. This was a very contentious period, including the status od King Leopold. Some especially the Communists wanted him put on trial for collaboration. One of the questions that arose was the responsibity for the persecultion, roundup, and deportment of Jews. Especially pertinant was the role of the Antwerp police. Officials decided not to try the police. One historian maintains that this decesion was taken because to try the police would mean that their commanders would have to be tried as well as higher officials who gave the orders. Eventually this would mean that the entire system was responsible. Officials did not want such as issue raised at such a crucial point in Belgian history. One historian writes, "The Belgian state decided at the end of 1945 that the Belgian authorities bore no legal or other responsibility for the persecution of the Jews." [Van Doorslaer]
American Jewish Year Book Vol. 46, Copyright 1944 (Philadelphia: Jewish Publication Society of America, 1944), p. 220. As this was written during the War, the accuracy of this accounts available has to be questioned.
Capps, Reilly. "In the Holocaust, hide-and-seek was no game," Washington Post, September 20, 2003, pp. C1, 8.
Dawidowicz, L.S. The War Against the Jews (Bantam, 1976).
De Cocatrix, A. Die Zahl der Nationalsozialistischen Verfolgung (Arolsen: International Tracing Service, April 1977).
"Deportation and Death: Eyewitness Testimony," Congress Weekly (New York: Am. Jewish Congress), Dec. 4, 1942, pp. 6-7.
Gilbert, Martin. The Holocaust (Holt, Rinehart & Winston: 1985).
Gilbert, Martin. Atlas of the Holocaust (New York: William Morrow, 1993).
Hilberg, Raul. The Destruction of the European Jews (1985).
Israelitisches Wochenblatt f�r die Schweiz, No. 42, Oct. 16, 1942, pp. 10-11. This was a Jewish newspaper in Switzerland and thus there access to accuate information has to be questioned. It could be well NAZI disinformation. There are, however, other repots of Jewish slave labor being used on the Eastern Front.
Nuremberg documents NG-5209 (or NG-022) and NG-5219.
Rich, Norman Rich. Hitler's War Aims, Vol. 2 (New York: Norton, 1974).
Robinson, Jacob. And the Crooked Shall Be Made Straight (New York: Macmillan, 1965).
Longerich, P. ed., Die Ermordung der europ�ischen Juden (Piper, 1990), pp. 263, 265.
Rotmil, Charles. E-mail message, July 22, 2010.
Schreiber, Marion. The Twentieth Train: The True Story of the Ambush of the Death Train to Auschwitz (Grove, 2004), 308p. Translated by Shaun Whiteside. The title of the English-language translation is misleading. The book is actually the story of the Belgian World War II ressistance, especially the resistance to the Holocaust.
Van Doorslaer, Rudi. ed. La Belgique Docile ("Obedient Belgium") (2007), 1,100p. This report was commissdioned by the Belgian Government to assess the role of Belgian officials for the Holocaut carried out by the NAZIs in Belgium.
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