This Day in Jewish History |

1941: Jews of Antwerp Are Attacked

In the early years of World War II, the local citizens of Antwerp, spurred by sympathy for the Nazis and a lack of interference from the police, looted Jewish shops, attacked two synagogues and ransacked the home of a local rabbi.

David Green
David B. Green
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The city of Antwerp.
The city of Antwerp.Credit: Wikimedia
David Green
David B. Green

April 14, 1941, was the day when pro-Nazi citizens of Antwerp attacked residents and property in the city’s Jewish quarter, an event that has become known as the “Antwerp Pogrom.” The crowd, encouraged by the German occupying forces, first looted and damaged Jewish-owned shops before turning their rage on two synagogues and the home of a local rabbi.

At the time the Germans began instituting anti-Jewish measures in Belgium (in October 1940), the Jewish population of Antwerp, near the country’s northern border, numbered 29,500, constituting more than half of Belgium’s Jewish population. Initially, Jews were subject to a curfew from dusk to dawn, and Jewish-owned businesses had to carry special markings. Following that, in the winter of 1940-41, some 3,000 Jews who had migrated to Antwerp after 1938 were moved to a rural region of Belgium.

Support for the Nazis was especially high in the ethnically Flemish city, and the attack of April of 1941 was organized by several pro-German organizations, which included the Vlaams Nationaal Verbond (Flemish National Union), De Vlag (the Flag), and De Algemeene SS-Vlaanderen (Germanic SS in Flanders). April 14 was Easter Monday that year, and the offensive followed a screening of the viciously anti-Semitic German film “The Eternal Jew.” Armed with sticks and iron bars, the rioters, who numbered about 200, struck, and badly vandalized, both the Van den Nestlei and the Oostenstraat synagogues, and burned a number of their Torah scrolls. Additionally, many stores owned by Jews were burned, and the home of Antwerp’s chief rabbi, Marcus Rottenberg, was attacked.

Although the rioting was allowed to proceed without interference from the police, who were unarmed, or the fire brigade, the indignant public reaction to the attacks led the city council to take responsibility for the pogrom (which was followed by another attack three days later), and to offer compensation to the Jews who suffered damage. But the Germans blocked this decision from being implemented.

A year later, all of Belgium’s Jews were required to wear a yellow star, and by the summer of 1942, they became subject to mass arrests. Detainees were taken to a transit camp in Mechelen, and from there deported to the death camps. For the Jews of Antwerp, most of whom were not Belgian citizens, the principal roundup took place on the night of August 28, 1942, which was Shabbat. For those with citizenship, who had been spared a year earlier, a second wave of arrests was carried out in September 1943.

By the time Belgium was liberated, on September 4, 1944, only about 800 Jews remained in Antwerp; they had survived with the help of the local population. In statistical terms, 67 percent of Antwerp’s Jews suffered deportation, as compared with 37 percent of those living in Brussels.. The much higher rate of deportation in Antwerp is generally attributed to the fact that so many of the city’s Jews were immigrants from Eastern Europe, to their concentration in a limited number of neighborhoods, and to the high level of sympathy for the Nazis among the city’s population.

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