Belgium was invaded by German forces on 10 May 1940, and it surrendered on 28 May on the orders of King Leopold III. The King stayed in Belgium, but the Prime Minister and many cabinet members fled to London, where they set up a government-in-exile. The German occupiers formed a military administration (for Belgium and Northern France), led by Alexander von Falkenhausen, which was replaced by a civil administration in July 1944. Belgium was liberated in September of that year, although the fighting and bombing continued until May 1945.
During the occupation, German orders resulted in the registeration of about 57,000 Jews in Belgium, out of a total Belgian population of over 8 million. Of those Jews, 10 percent at the most were Belgian citizens; the others were mostly recent immigrants from Eastern and Central Europe. Over 90 percent of the Jewish population resided in Brussels and Antwerp. Shortly after the German invasion of 10 May 1940, the Belgian government arrested a few thousand German (and Austrian) nationals, including Jews, and sent them to camps in France. The Jews among them were included in the deportations from France. Anti-Jewish legislation was enacted in October 1940 and became worse in May 1941, when the economic plundering of the Jews began. In April 1941, a pogrom took place in Antwerp, organised by local anti-Jewish organisations. In May 1942, the Yellow Star became obligatory. Then, in June 1942, Jews were summoned to present themselves in the new transit camp Dossin in Mechelen (a town between Antwerp and Brussels) through an Arbeitseinsatzbefehl (work order). In the summer of 1942, the German police forces and their collaborators actively started looking for Jews, with large raids taking place in Brussels and Antwerp. The deportations began on 4 August 1942 and lasted until 31 July 1944. A total of 26 convoys left the Dossin camp, mainly to Auschwitz, with some convoys going to Bergen-Belsen and Vittel in France. Overall, more than 25,000 victims were deported. The vast majority perished in the camps.
The National Archives of Belgium and the State Archives in the Provinces, in short, the State Archives, are a federal academic establishment that forms part of the Belgium Federal Science Policy Office. The institution includes the National Archives in Brussels, which holds records of the Ministries and the Foreign Police, and 18 State Archives that are distributed throughout the country. In addition to the state archives, there are collections in private archives and museums.
CEGESOMA, the Centre for Documentation and Research on War and Contemporary Society, is a federal research centre and was founded in 1969. It holds important Holocaust collections, such as the archives of the Devisenschutzkommando, the records of the trial against von Falkenhausen, the Tätigkeitsberichte of the Military Administration and important files from the former Military Prosecutor’s Office. The Directorate-General for War Victims is an institution of the Federal Public Service for Social Security. It is not an archival institution, but nevertheless holds one of the largest and most important collections on the Holocaust in Belgium from a victim perspective. On the perpetrator side, there is the archive of the former Military Prosecutor’s Office, which includes all the post-war trial records. Besides the national institutions, there are some important city (and communal) archives, such as those of Brussels, Antwerp, Liège, Charleroi and Ghent. The Jewish Museum of Belgium in Brussels holds important victim sources, as do some remembrance organisations such as the Auschwitz Foundation and the Foundation of Contemporary Memory, which collect testimonies. Last but not least, there is the Kazerne Dossin: Memorial, Museum and Documentation Centre on Holocaust and Human Rights, located in the buildings of the former transit camp Dossin in Mechelen, which holds important copied and original material on the Holocaust.
EHRI has identified a number of helpful publications and archival guides on Belgium (see the extensive report). At the same time that EHRI started its identification and investigation work, the national archives of Belgium started a project to put together a guide on sources on Jewish life in Belgium. EHRI closely cooperated with the directors of the project at the national archives and the project researchers. The identification of repositories holding Holocaust-related collections has dramatically improved thanks to this collaborative identification work. The EHRI portal now presents information on 122 repositories, most of them with detailed information.
Belgian archives most important to Holocaust research include Kazerne Dossin: Memorial, Museum and Documentation Centre on Holocaust and Human Rights. This museum and documentation centre actively collects material, often private collections, about the Holocaust in Belgium. It holds the largest collection of materials on the topic in Belgium, including original, photocopied and scanned materials. EHRI supported Kazerne Dossin by helping them transfer the existing texts into archival descriptions according to international archival standards, and integrating new descriptions into this system. This resulted in a major step forward for Kazerne Dossin: from 17 collection descriptions, Kazerne Dossin now provides EHRI with over 253 descriptions. It continues this effort in order to make all its materials publicly available on a collection level. Another important institution, both for documentation and research is the Centre for Historical Research and Documentation on War and Contemporary Society (CEGESOMA). Collection descriptions from CEGESOMA were selected via key-word selection and literature search (verification of bibliographies of key works on the Holocaust in Belgium) and integrated by EHRI. This export includes archival documents, manuscripts and photo descriptions. Many sources are stored in repositories outside of Belgium. First of all, there are the archives of the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee (with branches in New York and Jerusalem) and the World Jewish Congress records on Belgium (stored at the Jacob Rader Marcus Center of the American Jewish Archives in Cincinnati). The Yad Vashem archives hold both original and copied materials on Jews in Belgium, including the original documents of the Belgian Jewish Committee in London during the Second World War. Likewise, USHMM holds vast materials on Jews in Belgium, both originals and copies. Their copy collection on Belgium includes copies from the Directorate-General War Victims, from CEGESOMA, from the National archives (Foreigner’s police archives, Brüsseler Treuhandgesellschaft collection, Archive of the Diamond collection and other files. The original collections include the “Fela and Chaïm Perelman papers”. The extensive report on Belgium also includes references to publications on sources on Belgium stored in German and French archives (most notably, the German sources on Belgium kept at the French National Archives at Pierrefitte-sur-Seine, the sub-series AJ40, and those kept at the Bundesarchiv-Militärarchiv Freiburg).
A. EHRI approach to Belgium: Pre-existing research, available archival guides, expert support
Two official research projects, commissioned by the Belgian State, that have recently been carried out by, among others, CEGESOMA, have mapped an important part of the Holocaust-related archives. The first one, conducted in 2001, was about the spoliation of Jewish assets during the war. The second one, whose results were published in 2007, investigated the possible responsibility of Belgian national and local authorities in the persecution of the Jews.
Les biens des victims des persecutions anti-juives en Belgique: spoliation, rétablissement des droits, résultats de la Commission d’étude. / De bezittingen van de slachtoffers van de jodenvervolging in België: spoliatie, rechtsherstel, bevindingen van de studiecommissie: eindverslag. - Brussels: Chancellery of the Prime Minister, July 2001
Rudi Van Doorslaer (dir), Emmanuel Debruyne, Frank Seberechts, Nico Wouters (a.l.p.d. Lieven Saerens), La Belgique docile. Les autorités belges et la persécution des juifs en Belgique durant la Seconde guerre mondiale, Brussel, Luc Pire/Ceges, 2007, 2 vol., 1,545 p. / Rudi Van Doorslaer (red.), Emmanuel Debruyne, Frank Seberechts, Nico Wouters (i.s.m. Lieven Saerens), Gewillig België. Overheid en Jodenvervolging tijdens de Tweede Wereldoorlog, Antwerpen/Brussel, Meulenhoff-Manteau/Soma, 2007, 1,163 p.
At the same time that EHRI started its identification and investigation work, the national archives of Belgium started a project to put together a guide on sources on Jewish life in Belgium. EHRI closely cooperated with the directors of the project at the national archives and the two project researchers, Gertjan Desmet and Pascale Falek Alhadeff.
Pierre-Alain Tallier (dir.), Gertjan Desmet & Pascale Falek-Alhadeff, Bronnen voor de geschiedenis van de Joden en het Jodendom in België, 19de-21ste eeuw, Brussel, ARA-AGR/Avant-Propos, 2016, 1328 p.
Until the publication of this guide, no such archival overview was available. The only overview available dealt with periodicals and publications on Jewish history (and in case of the latter, indirectly led to the primary sources while bringing an overview of the secondary sources):
Zosa Szajkowski. “Bibliography of Jewish Periodicals in Belgium, 1841–1959”, Studies in Bibliography and Booklore, Vol. 4, No. 3 (June 1960), pp. 103-122 (Published by: Hebrew Union College - Jewish Institute of Religion; Article Stable URL: http://www.jstor.org/stable/27943319).
Daniel Dratwa. Répertoire des périodiques juifs parus en Belgique de 1841 à 1986. Brussels: Pro Museo Judaico, 1987.
Barbara Dickschen — Jacques Déom — Catherine Massange — Jean-Philippe Schreiber, Guide Bibliographique: Les Juifs en Belgique. Brussels, Fondation de la Mémoire Contemporaine-Stichting Eigentijdse Herinnering, 2008 [updated version in 2014].
In addition to the works explicitly mentioned above, EHRI’s identification work relied on many other publications on the Holocaust in Belgium as well as other archival guides (none of which entirely dedicated to Holocaust sources). For a general introduction to sources on Belgian contemporary history, see:
Patricia Van den Eeckhout & Guy Vanthemsche (eds.), Bronnen voor de studie van het hedendaagse België, 19e-21e eeuw (Brussels: Koninklijke Commissie voor Geschiedenis / Commission royale d'Histoire, 2009, 2nd revised edition).
For finding aids on sources on Belgium during the Second World War in German and French archives, see:
Stefan Martens & Sebastian Remus, Frankreich und Belgien unter deutscher Besatzung 1940-1944; die Bestände des Bundesarchiv-Militärarchivs Freiburg (Stuttgart: Jan Thorbecke Verlag, 2002).
Guy Beaujouan, Anne-Marie Bourgoin, Pierre Cézard, et.al., La France et la Belgique sous l'occupation allemande, 1940-1944. Les fonds allemands conservés au Centre historique des Archives nationales. Inventaire de la sous-série AJ40 (Paris: Centre historique des Archives nationales, 2002).
The data investigation and selection work for Belgium has been carried out by Veerle Vanden Daelen, Gertjan Desmet, Hans Boers and Lieven Saerens. The enhancement of the repository descriptions was done by Hans Boers, Esther Everaert and Veerle Vanden Daelen. The collection descriptions for Kazerne Dossin, integrating the available information at Kazerne Dossin, were principally done by Ward Adriaans, with the support of Dorien Styven and Veerle Vanden Daelen.
B. Characteristics of the Belgian archival system and specific challenges
Belgium has a large number of repositories, considering the size of the country, and they are a mixture of public and private initiatives. This means researchers sometimes find them hard to navigate. When looking for basic information about victims, local and national administrations often have personal files on these persons. The majority of Jews in Belgium did not hold Belgian nationality (less than 10 percent at the registration in 1940). For the non-naturalized legal residents the foreigners' police had personal or family files. These files are being kept both on a local level (the city administrations) and, on a national level (central files). It is important to know that the Jewish communities in Belgium were concentrated in Brussels and Antwerp, and to a far lesser extent in Charleroi and Liège. Following the decree from 29 August 1942, Jews were only allowed to live in one of these four cities. But still there are interesting sources in other city archives. The case of the deportation of a few thousand Jews from Antwerp to communities in the adjacent province of Limburg at the end of 1940 illustrates this: They were allowed to return after a few months, but their stay obviously left traces in some of the local archives. These archives can be identified using (local) studies on this very specific subject, but we are talking about very small archives with sometimes very limited collections on the Holocaust period. The foreigners’ files are accessible via name registers, organised according to date of arrival in Belgium. It has to be noted that public administrations in Belgium are not allowed to register ethnic or religious background. None of the official pre- or post-war sources therefore mention “Jew” or “Jewishness” (unlike in the neighbouring Netherlands, for example, where religion was duly registered).
Indeed, this access via names – instead of, for example, by topic – poses one of the most important challenges to find both victim and perpetrator sources in Belgium. Important victim sources are held by the Directorate-General War Victims, a state institution, originally founded by the Ministry of Reconstruction, which now belongs to the Federal Public Service of Social Security. Its task was to gather information on war victims in different military archives, judicial archives, etc., in order to obtain settlement and/or victim recognition. It thus built up a huge collection of personal files and files on some organisations, such as the Jewish resistance. There is no online catalogue, only a card index system which is not publicly accessible. It is alphabetically ordered, so one has to know the name of the person whose files he or she is looking for and there are no specific references to the persecution of the Jews. There is also an inventory, but the problem remains basically the same.
Similar problems arise in the case of one the most important archives for the study of the perpetrators. The archives of the former Military Prosecutor’s Office, where the files on the post-war trials of war criminals and collaborators are kept, are also not publicly accessible and do not have an online catalogue.
C. EHRI identification and description results on Belgium
C.I. In Belgium
EHRI's identification and investigation work in Belgium was based on a three-way approach.
- Actively identifying repositories (and collections, in the case of CEGESOMA) via the bibliographies of key publications on the subject.
- Providing Kazerne Dossin – Memorial, Museum and Documentation Centre on Holocaust and Human Rights (in short: Kazerne Dossin) with know-how and assistance to provide shareable descriptions of its sources that meet the international archival standards.
- Working closely together with the authors and directors of the research guide on Mekorot Hayeda. Sources for the history of the Jews in Belgium (19th-20th centuries)
First of all, the identification of repositories holding Holocaust-related collections was dramatically improved by EHRI’s identification work, both via its own identification work based on the abovementioned reference works and through cooperation with the national archives and their research guide authors. At the start of EHRI, the Directory of Holocaust-Related Archives of the Claims Conference listed 7 Belgian archives while the Guide éuropeen des sources d’archives de la Shoah provided information on 9 repositories. EHRI's portal now contains information on 125 repositories, most of them with detailed information.
The reason for the huge gap that had to be covered has much to do with a late attention for Holocaust documentation and research in Belgium. CEGESOMA was created in the late 1960s, which is rather late compared to similar institutions in other countries, such as NIOD in the Netherlands. Moreover, although the persecution of Jews during the Second World War was always present both in the collections and in research, it was never a central focus point. This late start was very much visible when EHRI started its activities. EHRI's activities coincided with the start of a research guide on Jewish sources at the National archives, and the opening of Kazerne Dossin, so the project started precisely at a time when the topic received wide attention in Belgium on an academic, archivist and public level.
Identification of collections
Because of the abovementioned challenges, the first point of call of any research on the persecution of Jews in Belgium should be Kazerne Dossin. Kazerne Dossin was created in the mid 1990s as the Jewish Museum of Deportation and Resistance and was located in the former transit camp Dossin in Mechelen. This museum and documentation centre actively collects material, often private collections, about the Holocaust in Belgium. It holds the largest collection of materials on the topic in Belgium, including original, photocopied and scanned materials. Often, Kazerne Dossin can offer easier access to originals kept elsewhere, as it has, first of all, such a wide variety of sources in one central place and, secondly, because its database can trace multiple sources on one person, thereby giving easy access to scanned foreigners’ files on victims of the Holocaust (whereas in the original archives one would have to go through the register and then request the file needed, or search for the correct microfilm) or other sources. Consulting these sources in the original repository, would require a lot of effort in terms of administration and identification. Moreover, Kazerne Dossin keeps track of ongoing research and has a team of experts in the subject.
However, despite the richness of its sources, the archives of Kazerne Dossin, remained fairly unknown to the outside world because of the limited information available via finding aids. On its website, Kazerne Dossin provided one text describing its main collections, which was regularly updated: The number of described collections fluctuated between 9 and 17 and the identifier numbers attached to the collection descriptions changed. Much of the materials – often precious private sources from victims or survivors, donated to the museum – remained hidden behind generic descriptions such as “Museum’s collection” or were only described in a separate Word document, stored in a folder together with the scans of the originals and only accessible to staff. EHRI supported Kazerne Dossin by helping them transfer the existing texts into archival descriptions according to international archival standards, and integrate new descriptions into this system. This resulted in a major step forwards for Kazerne Dossin: the number of collection descriptions provided to EHRI rose from 17 to 225 descriptions and Kazerne Dossin continues its efforts to make all its materials publicly available on a collection level. As one of the archivists stated: “It is only since EHRI came along that people here accepted the need to work according to international archival standards”.
Collection descriptions from the Centre for Historical Research and Documentation on War and Contemporary Society (CEGESOMA) were selected via keyword selection and literature search (verification of bibliographies of key works on the Holocaust in Belgium) and integrated by EHRI's IT specialists. The export includes archival documents, manuscripts and photo descriptions.
Mekorot Hayeda. Sources for the history of the Jews in Belgium (19th-20th centuries) The archival guide “Mekorot Hayeda” was analysed and the descriptions relevant to the EHRI project, both in Belgium and abroad, were selected and added to the EHRI portal.
C.II.In other countries
Many sources are stored in repositories outside of Belgium. First of all, there are the archives of the JDC (with branches in New York and Jerusalem) and of the World Jewish Congress records on Belgium (stored at the Jacob Rader Marcus Center of the American Jewish Archives in Cincinnati). Original documents of the Belgian Jewish Committee in London during the Second World War are available at Yad Vashem (M.22). This committee, founded in 1943 in London by Herman Schamisso, unified a group of Belgian Jewish exiles in London. Their records contain correspondence with various Jewish institutions in Belgium, England, the US and elsewhere. They also contain correspondence with the Belgian government-in-exile about ways of assisting Jews in Belgium and Jews from Belgium in exile abroad. Furthermore, the records include lists of deportees and survivors. In addition to this rich collection, Yad Vashem has both original and copied documents on Jews in Belgium, including on Jewish resistance (M.64, 0.29, 0.44). There are also indirect sources on Jews in Belgium, such as “Documentation regarding the Holocaust from the Central Archives in Moscow, 1939-1945” (M.40) and “Documentation of the Central British Fund” (M.56).
USHMM also holds vast materials, both originals and copies, on Jews in Belgium. Their copy collection on Belgium includes copies from the Directorate-General War Victims, from CEGESOMA, from the National archives (Foreigner’s police archives, Brüsseler Treuhandgesellschaft collection, Archive of the Diamond collection and other files). A non-exhaustive list of the copies includes: selected records from the Belgian War Crimes Tribunals and Investigation Records, selected records from the Ministry of Reconstruction of Belgium, selected records from the Belgian Royal Archives, selected records related to the Pierre Beeckmans Anti-Jewish organisation in Belgium, selected records from the City of Liège and from the Consistoire Central Israélite de Belgique, and records relating to the Breendonk camp. The original collections include the “Fela and Chaïm Perelman papers” (Acc.nr. 2006.432). Chaïm Perelman (a very influential philosopher in the fields of the philosophy of law and argument) founded the "Comité de Défense des Juifs," the Jewish underground in Belgium. Both Chaïm and Fela worked for the underground during the war. Fela opened a kindergarten called 'Nos Petits' in 1942 and when the school closed he made effortsto hide Jewish children.
German sources on Belgium during the Second World War are stored at, among other places, the French National Archives at Pierrefitte-sur-Seine (sub-series AJ40), and the Bundesarchiv-Militärarchiv Freiburg.