The Righteous in Belgium
Prior to the outbreak of World War II, around 65,000-70,000 Jews lived in Belgium. In 1930, only about 6% of Jews, living in Belgium, were actually Belgian citizens. The vast majority had arrived from eastern European countries and, after 1933, from the Third Reich. Jews lived mainly in Antwerp and Brussels.
The Germans’ attack on Belgium began on 10th May 1940 and ended on 28th May with Belgium’s surrender. Belgium became occupied by the Third Reich under military administration, at the head of which was the commander of the Wehrmacht in Belgium, Alexander von Falkenhausen. Hans Eggert Reeder was responsible for matters relating to the country’s Jews.
To 1943, eighteen anti-Jewish regulations were introduced into Belgium. The first, announced in October 1940, defined who was a Jew, followed by a regulation banning Jews from practising law, medicine, being a teacher or an administrator. On 31st May 1941, two regulations were issued which required Jewish shops to be marked as such and required all Jewish businesses and shares belonging to Jews to be registered. In the following months of 1941, the occupation authorities introduced a curfew for Jews and limited their freedom of movement. From that time, Jews could only live in four cities - Brussels, Antwerp, Liège and Charleroi. On 25th November 1941, the Germans created a roof body to represent all the Jews – the Association of Jews in Belgium (Association des Juifs en Belgique), headed by the great Belgian rabbi Dr. Salomon Ullmann.
Several other regulations were issued during 1942 – a ban on Jews leaving Belgium, the ability for the Germans to recruit Jews for forced labour, forbidding Jews from selling real estate and allowing Jews limited access to practse medicine. On 29th May 1942, all Jews were required to wear a gold Star of David with the letter “J”.
The first deportation of Jews from Belgium took place in the first half of June 1942, when men, aged 16-60, and women, aged 16-40, were transported to Todt Organisation forced labour camps. Mass deportations to extermination camps began on 4th August 1942. To the middle of November 1942, 15,000 Jews were deported from Belgium. They were mainly immgrants from Poland, Czechoslovakia and other eastern European countries. Consecutive deportations also included Jews who were Belgian citizens. Most of the transports departed for the camps between August and October 1942. The Jews were first sent to the camp in Mechelen (Malines). After several days, weeks or months, they were then sent to KL Auschwitz. Between August 1942 and 31st July 1944, a total of twenty eight transports were sent to KL Auschwitz, carrying almost 25,000 Jews out of Belgium (around 25% of all Jews living in Belgium at the outbreak of the War). Of these, about 1,800 survived.
Belgians Aiding the Jewish Population
Those researching the extermination of Jews in Belgium mention three factors which contributed to the survival of a significant part of the Belgian Jewish community – the activities of the Catholic Church, spontaneous and organised assistance from the non-Jewish community and an effective resistance movement.
In the first period of occupation, which included the deportation of Jews from 1942, Belgians, as Dan Michman assesses in his introduction to the book The Encyclopedia of the Righteous Among the Nations, were rather indifferent to the fate of the Belgian Jews. At the same time, however, municipal councils in several Belgian cities showed solidarity with the Jews, slowing down or blocking their registration which, as it would turn out later, would have expedited their deportation. In June 1942, a conference took place with the participation of nineteen mayors from the Brussels region. During the conference, these authorities refused to enforce a regulation, dated 4th June 1942, in their areas, which required Jews to wear the Star of David. Brussels Mayor Joseph Van De Meulebroeck and the Liège City Council opposed the implementation of this regulation. This step aided many Jews to find shelter prior to the start of the mass deporatations to the death camps.
During this time, Queen Elizabeth of Belgian played a significant role in saving Belgian Jews. In August 1942, through the agency of the Italian royal family and the Red Cross, she made a direct demand to Hitler to cease the removal of Jews from Belgium. In reply, she received a promise that Jews with Belgian citizenship would neither be deported nor would they be separated from their families. The Germans did not keep their promise and deported them a few months later. In response to Belgian protests, the RSHA (the Reich Main Security Office) also agreed not to deport, to forced labour camps, men over the age of 65 and women over the age of 65. The first printed protest against the deportation of Jews appeared in September 1942 in the underground Catholic newspapers “La Libre Belgique” and “De Vrijschutter”.
During the period of mass deportations, Belgians, well aware of the situation facing the Jews, took various measures to help them. In September 1942, a representative of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, at the Wehrmacht Command of Werner von Bargen, informed his superiors of the growing number of Jews who were hiding with Belgian families. The Belgian Catholic Church played a significant role in locating and distributing hiding places. During the War and during the German occupation, the Church played an important role in the public life of this country. The Archbishop of Malines and primate of Belgium, Cardinal Van Roey, responded negatively towards Nazism. However, until 1942, he refrained from public and open criticism of the Third Reich, in order to protect the Church from Nazi persecution. However, long before the deportations, when numerous Jews asked him for protection, the Cardinal offered to help them. Just like the Belgian Queen Elizabeth, he protested the deportations. In the summer of 1942, he informed the Vatican that the persecution of Jews had outraged the Belgian community. For his support of Jews in Belgium, Cardinal Van Roey received a letter of thanks, in August 1942, from the Consisoir et Centrale des Israelites en Belgique (Central Council of Jews in Belgium).
Priests throughout Belgium followed the Cardinal’s example, particularly in the episcopates of Malines, Liége, Tournai and Namur. In the Liége episcopate, Bishop Louis Joseph Kerkhofs personally took action to help Jews, maintaining direct contact with the Jewish resistance movement active in his region. Bishop Kerkhofs, himself, participated in the hiding of Jewish children. Others to help in a similar manner included Abbé Jan Bruylandts in Brussels and Joseph Andre in Namur, who found hiding places for around two hundred children. Father Bruno Reynders in Mt. Cesar cared for about three hundred Jewish children. Children were also helped by the Catholic Youth Movement (Katholieke Arbeidersjeunesse Ouvriére Chrétienne), as well as by Brigitte Moens, a member of the Catholic resistance movement. She facilitated contacts with various Catholic institutions which assisted in the hiding of Jewish children or which organised false papers for them.
The Communist underground (Front del’Independance) also participated in assisting Jews. They maintained very close contact with the Jewish underground, the Comité de Défence des Juifs (CDJ) which was established in the summer of 1942. That organisation saved almost 4,000 children (one-third of whom had escaped from deportation operations) and found hiding places for about 10,000 adults. In April 1943, members of the organisation attacked a train carrying around 1,600 Jews to KL Auschwitz. They managed to set free seventeen prisoners, while another two hundred prisoners managed to escape.
The Euvre Nationale des Enfants (ONE) organisation was also engaged in saving Jewish children. It was headed by Yvonne Nevejean, known as “La Grande Dame”. Thanks to her involvement, 3,000-4,000 Jewish children were rescued. That organization was also helped by the mayor of Uccle, Jean Herinckx. Jewish children could count on shelter and care in a tuberculosis sanitorium near Brussels where the Director was Christine Hendrickx-Duchaine. In the small village of Cornement-Louveigne, all the local families hid Jewish children with the full knowledge of the local mayor. Around twenty Jewish children were also hidden by Rene Jacqmotte, in a home for children with psychological disorders. In the Jeueesse Ouvriére Chrétienne, dozens of the very youngest were hidden in its boarding house. Members of some of Belgium’s most outstanding families were also involved in helping Jews. These included Isabelle d’Oultremont, Baron Charles de Radzitskyd’Otrowick and Prince Eugéne de Ligne.
Many adult Jews found their own hiding places in villages and small towns, mainly in the western part of Belgium. After the end of occupation, more than 40% of the Jews were in hiding and, in June 1944, according to the Security Police and the SD, 80% of all Jews living in Belgium had false identity documents. Dan Michman, in the abovementioned text, estimates that around 25% of the Jews had found shelter with Belgian families. About 40,000 Jews survived the War. Of those who agreed to help them, 1,707 individuals have been honoured with the title of Righteous Among the Nations (as at 1st December 2016).
S. Brachfeld, A Gift of Life. The Deportation and the Rescue of the Jews in Occupied Belgium (1940-1944), Jerusalem 2007.
R. Hilberg, Zagłada Żydów Europejskich, vol. II, translated J. Giebułtowski, Warszawa 2014.
D. Michman, Historical Introduction [in] The Encyclopedia of the Righteous Among the Nation. Rescuers of Jews during the Holocaust, ed. Israel Gutman, Jerusalem, 2005.
M. Paldiel, The rescue of Jewish Children in Belgium During World War II [in] Belgium and the Holocaust. Jews. Belgians. Germans, ed. D. Michman, Jerusalem 1998.
M. van den Wijngaert, The Belgian Catholics and the Jews During the German Occupation, 1940-1944 [in] Belgium and the Holocaust. Jews. Belgians. Germans, ed. D. Michman, Jerusalem 1998.
dr Aleksandra Namysło / English translation: Andrew Rajcher