The history of the Jews of Belgium during the Second World War has received surprisingly little attention, especially considering the exceptionally high number of Jewish children who survived the Holocaust in hiding there. Michael Marrus’s The Holocaust in History, to take just one example, contains a few scattered passages on Belgium, and that is pretty typical. My interest in this subject was sparked by Marrus’s passing reference to the fact that the only known attack by a resistance group on a train deporting Jews to the extermination camps took place in Belgium.
But then, Belgium has become a byword for obscurity among the ignorant British, who like to amuse themselves by being unable to name ten famous Belgians. (Jan van Eyck, Peter Paul Rubens, the Breugels, Rogier van der Weyden and David Teniers make a good start, and that is just among painters.) Hugo Claus, Belgium’s most famous contemporary writer, who died in March 2008, was also virtually unknown in Britain as he was from Flanders and wrote in Dutch. A strong contender for the Nobel Prize, he never won it, though his masterpiece, Het Verdriet van België (The Sorrow of Belgium) (1983), seems to me to be at least the equal of such novels by British Nobel Prize laureates as V. S. Naipaul’s A House for Mr. Biswas or Doris Lessing’s Golden Notebook.
The Sorrow of Belgium is available in English, but I would recommend Alain van Crugten’s excellent French translation, Le Chagrin des Belges, to those who read French. Claus’s semi-autobiographical novel, set in a Flemish town in the years immediately before, during and after the Second World War, describes the passage of its hero, Louis Seynaeve, from childhood through adolescence over some eight years. It shares its title and, to some extent, its scurrilous, aggressive, unsettling, but brilliantly imaginative narrative style with a striking painting by the enigmatic artist James Ensor of Ostend, best known for his Entry of Christ into Brussels (1888).
One of the novel’s main themes is the susceptibility of some Flemish-speaking Belgians to extreme nationalistic and Nazi ideology, leading to a considerable degree of collaboration during the German occupation (1940-44). Claus brings out the resentment felt by Flemish speakers at their treatment as second-class citizens by the French-speaking ruling elites, which sharpened their feelings of Flemish nationalism; some of them rejected the Belgian state, hankering instead after an independent Flanders or integration into a larger ‘Germanic’ unit, separatist anti-French dreams the occupying Nazis were only too willing to foster.
Admiration among right-wingers for the supposed superiority of Führer-style dictatorship over parliamentary democracy was reinforced among Flemish speakers by their sense that the Belgian parliament was merely a corrupt instrument for imposing the political interests of French-speaking parties on underprivileged Flanders. The Catholic Church, extremely influential in rural Flanders, tended to see Hitler as a bulwark against ‘godless Bolshevism’, while its notorious demonisation of Jews as ‘killers of Christ’ helped to prepare the ground for racial antisemitism. One of the nuns who runs Louis Seynaeve’s first school, for example, claims to have seen a Jewish pupil, who has ‘insinuated himself’ into the school as a ‘normal’ child, secretly desecrating consecrated bread with an expression of ‘indescribable hatred’ on his face.
While French-speaking Wallonia produced Belgium’s most notorious Fascist movement, Léon Degrelle’s Rexists, as well as a Walloon Waffen SS Division, it was in Flanders that collaboration with the Germans ran deepest, as it had during the First World War. Seynaeve himself briefly joins the Flemish National Socialist youth movement, while many of his elders admire and work with the occupying Nazis and younger men join units like the Flemish Waffen SS Division Langemarck. Far-right and pro-Nazi groups sympathetic to the Fascist concept of the ‘New Order’ abound in the novel, most prominently the Flemish nationalist Vlaams Nationaal Verbond.
The linguistic divide in Belgium, which remained highly sensitive politically after the war, was one factor that tended to deter historians from addressing the Holocaust there. Another was the post-war focus on the controversial role played by the Belgian king, Leopold III, who in May 1940 had ordered his army to capitulate prematurely to the Germans without the approval of his government, had chosen to stay in Belgium instead of going into exile in London, and had married the daughter of a suspected collaborator. The Holocaust in Belgium was consequently slow to receive the attention it merited: the first major history of it, Maxime Steinberg’s three-volume study, appeared only in the mid-1980s, and it was not until the 1990s that scholars fully grasped the importance of the hidden Jewish children in Belgium.
Whereas names like Drancy, the transit camp in France from which Jews were deported to Auschwitz, or Westerbork, its Dutch equivalent, are widely known, far fewer have heard of Breendonk in Belgium, or know how the Jews of Belgium were summoned by the Germans to Malines/Mechelen, midway between Brussels and Antwerp, there to be incarcerated in the Dossin Barracks and deported to the extermination camps. It was from the Dossin Barracks that the train attacked by the resistance on 19 April 1943, Convoy XX, set out on its way to Auschwitz.
In 1939 Belgium had a Jewish community of some 70,000, about half as many as the 140,000 Jews in Holland, but far more than the 8,000 Jews in Denmark. Yet, because of Anne Frank and the rescue of Danish Jews by boat to Sweden respectively, the public profile of the Holocaust in those two countries is much higher than is the case with Belgium; the first histories of the Holocaust in Holland appeared back in the 1950s. Even allowing for the fact that occupied Holland was run by a Reichskommissar, Arthur Seyss-Inquart, who gave the SS a free hand, whereas Belgium was until July 1944 under a military governor, Alexander von Falkenhausen, who was out of sympathy with Nazi ideology, the difference in survival rates for Jews between the two countries is remarkable: of the 60,000 Jews still in Belgium when the deportations commenced, almost 55 per cent, over 30,000, survived, while over 75 per cent of Dutch Jews, some 110,000, perished, compared to 28,500 Belgian-Jewish victims.
The crucial difference lay in the number of Jews who survived in hiding: in Belgium, this was exceptionally high, at some 25,000 (about 40 per cent of the Jewish population), whereas well under 20 per cent of Dutch Jews survived by being sheltered. Putting it another way, the proportion of Belgian Jews who were sheltered was, at 40 per cent, almost as great as the 45 per cent who perished. As a letter in our July 2008 issue stated, some 4,000 Jewish children survived in Belgium by being sheltered, often by Catholic institutions and other gentiles, but also by Jewish orphanages, which continued to operate throughout the period.
Even these figures, however, mask the impact of the regional/linguistic divide: in Antwerp, the largest city in Flanders and home to some 54 per cent of Belgium’s Jews, 65 per cent of Jews registered by the authorities were deported, whereas in French-speaking Brussels, where 38.5 per cent of Belgian Jews lived, only 37 per cent were deported. Whereas in Brussels the police refused to take part in rounding up and deporting the Jews, in Antwerp the municipal authorities collaborated fully, from the distribution of yellow stars in June 1942 by city officials (they put a helpful asterisk in the municipal register by the names of Jews who collected a star, thus marking them out for future ‘actions’) to the active participation of the city’s police in round-ups of Jews.
The particular victimisation of the Jews in Antwerp had its roots in pre-war times; in the 1930s, high levels of antisemitism, arising from a culture that combined ethnic Flemish nationalism with Catholic intolerance and accentuated by sympathy with Nazi Germany, led to physical attacks on Jews, culminating in anti-Jewish riots in late August 1939. Under the German occupation, the Jews of Antwerp came under severe pressure, partly as a result of the attitude of the municipal administration under Mayor Léon Delwaide in complying with German directives and partly as a result of antisemitism among the population, which led to a pogrom-like eruption of violence against Jews on 14 April 1941 (see the review article by Dan Michman of Yad Vashem, ‘Why Did So Many of the Jews in Antwerp Perish in the Holocaust?’, Yad Vashem Studies, 2002, accessible on the website of the Shoah Resource Centre).
Civilian attitudes in Antwerp differed from those in most of Belgium; fewer people helped Jews there, the Church in particular being less helpful, the local authorities and the police collaborated more energetically, and markedly fewer Jews survived in hiding. After the war, the investigation carried out into the role of Mayor Delwaide and the municipality was seriously inadequate, and the question of official collaboration in Antwerp was largely left untouched. Only in October 2007 did Mayor Patrick Janssens offer a formal apology for the part played by city officials in the organisation of the deportation of Antwerp’s Jews.