MECHELEN - Located halfway between Belgium’s two largest cities, Brussels and Antwerp, prosperous Mechelen has for centuries played a pivotal role in the country's economy and the arts.
During the Industrial Revolution, the first railway line in continental Europe connected Mechelen to nearby Brussels. Just over a century later, when the Industrial Revolution gave way to industrialized devolution in Europe, the extensive rail network running through Mechelen led the Nazis to choose it as the location for an infamous transit camp for Belgium and Northern France.
Between 1942 and 1944, the camp - which was located in Kazerne Dossin, a 17th century infantry barracks constructed during the Habsburg era - deported 25,500 Jews (as well as 352 Roma) to Auschwitz-Birkenau, of which only 5 percent survived the Final Solution.
In 1996, Belgium’s Jewish community set up the Jewish Museum of Deportation and Resistance on the ground floor of one wing of the Kazerne Dossin. Last month, a larger state-of-the-art museum and memorial opened its doors to the public.
The two generations of museums owe their existence to two men touched personally by the tragedy of deportation. One was Nathan Ramet, an Auschwitz survivor who reportedly refused to speak about his ordeal until he decided to establish the JMDR (sadly he died a few months before the new museum was opened). The other was the then Minister-President of Flanders, Patrick Dewael, whose grandfather, Arthur Vanderpoorten, died in the Bergen-Belsen concentration camp for his anti-Nazi activities.
The 25 million euro complex is a somber white mausoleum-like structure which its designer - the celebrated Flemish architect Bob Van Reeth - says was built with a brick for each person deported from the site. The museum's entire volume, meanwhile, is equivalent to the freight cars in the 28 convoys that transported the victims to their eventual death in Poland.
Inside, echoing the Hall of Names at Yad Vashem in Jerusalem, a wall rising the entire height of the building carries photos (or empty spaces where no pictures survive) for every single victim transported from Mechelen, in a bid to rehumanize them.
But with dozens of Holocaust museums and memorials around the world, including in nearby London and Paris, how does Kazerne Dossin intend to stand out?
“Naturally, we can’t tell the story of Auschwitz here. We focus on the Belgian story,” spokeswoman Sarah Verhaert explains.
That Belgian story is retold through photographs, newspaper clippings and other material from the time, as well as interactive personal testimonies from a number of survivors.
Caricatures and newspaper clippings from the time illustrate clearly that Judeophobia was not just a German ill but infected significant strata of Belgian society - though there was also great opposition to it, too.
With its own ready supply of homegrown anti-Semites, a natural question arises of whether any Belgians actively took part in the Nazi persecution. The issue of collaboration remains a touchy one in Belgium, even today, but the museum does not shy away from addressing it.
The accepted narrative is that only a tiny minority aided and abetted the Nazis out of ideological conviction, while others - such as the civil servants who helped draw up Belgium’s first-ever register of Jews - did so because they had no choice.
“We have to challenge the myth that the Nazi occupation left no room for maneuver,” says Herman Van Goethem, the museum’s curator and a prominent professor of history at the University of Antwerp. “In the hierarchal context of the time, Belgian civil servants had a margin for administrative resistance without putting their lives in danger.”
This margin for dissent could help explain why only roughly half of the 85,000 Jews in Belgium at the time were registered, and how deportation occurred more smoothly in some places and with more difficulty in others, such as Brussels.
“This museum has had to deal with a lot of sensitive issues, such as the role of the palace,” Verhaert notes. “At a certain moment, the palace had turned its head and looked away from what was happening.”
The part played by the Belgian monarch at the time, Leopold III, is particularly controversial. Although he defied the German occupiers at times and was kept under house arrest and even deported, his sympathies seemed to lie more with the Nazis than the Allies, whose expected entry into Belgium to push out the Germans he regarded as an “occupation.”
That said, the monarchy - as well as the Catholic Church - played a pivotal role in ensuring that no Jews with Belgian citizenship were deported. Also, Leopold’s mother, Queen Elisabeth, organised the rescue from deportation of hundreds of Jewish children.
But the most heroic, dangerous and defiant forms of resistance came from ordinary people, who harbored and hid Jews - at great personal risk. Some 1,500 of these everyday heroes are commemorated among the Righteous Among the Nations by Yad Vashem. These include Yvonne Nevejean, who helped hide some 4,000 Jewish children.
Jews also played an active part in the resistance, with many joining the Belgian underground. Perhaps the most audacious (and simple) example of this underground resistance was the daring rescue of Transport XX, one of the convoys from Mechelen. A Jewish doctor, Youra Livchitz, and his two non-Jewish friends, Robert Maistriau and Jean Franklemon, managed - equipped with little more than a makeshift red lantern - to stop the train to Auschwitz long enough for 231 of those on board to escape, half of whom were recaptured or killed.
21st century relevance
In addition to shedding light on the Belgian page of this dark chapter of European history, the museum approaches the Holocaust from what it describes as a unique perspective. “Kazerne Dossin is the first Holocaust museum that explicitly takes up human rights in its mission,” says Van Goethem.
Linking the Holocaust to the theme of human rights in general was chosen as a way of enabling modern audiences to better relate to this tragedy and to draw the necessary lessons from it.
The installations explore the dynamics of intolerance and exclusion, from bullying in the playground to discrimination against entire groups in society, and how this can escalate to mass violence. Segregation in the United States and apartheid in South Africa are among the case studies highlighted.
“Visitors find the link that is made between World War II and human rights today to be very interesting,” Verhaert says.
The connection has sparked some controversy, though. “The most common question we get is, ‘Why haven’t you included the Israeli-Palestinian conflict?’” Verhaert says. “But that is such a sensitive issue to address, especially here, which is a memorial for so many Jewish people.”
Although the atrocities committed in King Leopold II’s “Congo Free State” get a passing mention, questions have also been raised about why Belgium’s colonial ghosts have not been given greater prominence at Kazerne Dossin. Moreover, Belgium has no museums dedicated to its dark history in Africa. Though she admits that this is an unfortunate oversight, Verhaert notes, “No country likes to be confronted with its war history and its colonial legacy.”
Her observation rings true in many instances. For example, though Washington, D.C. is home to a centrally located Holocaust museum, the nearby National Museum of the American Indian has been criticised for failing “to confront the clash between foreign colonists and the native people they found here.”
Moreover, echoing a debate that is familiar elsewhere in Europe, Israel and the United States, the question of whether it is valid to compare the Holocaust to other atrocities also played out over the decade it took to plan and construct Kazerne Dossin. Some leading politicians insisted that “the unique character of the Shoah” must be preserved.
Van Goethem finds such objections to be both unfounded and potentially dangerous. “The exclusive focus on the uniqueness of the Shoah can lead to us isolating it, placing it completely outside ourselves, and viewing it as a completely incomprehensible event,” he argues.
And the greater that the distance in time and social reality grows, the harder it becomes for people to get their heads around the sheer scale and inhumanity of the Nazi's Final Solution. “The younger generation finds it all very hard to imagine,” Verhaert says. “I conducted a tour, and the multiracial group of young people found it hard to believe that there were some things people were not allowed to do, that Jews were not allowed on the tram, or in the park or the cinema.”
Verhaert sees this as a good sign, despite the growth of discrimination and intolerance in some quarters of Belgian society. Kazerne Dossin, she believes, can help make upcoming generations more appreciative of how special the multicultural reality they live in is, and the need to be vigilant in order to preserve it.