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After Many Years, Belgium Begins Looking at Its Wartime Complicity

October 22, 2004
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It could be two more years before Belgium’s Parliament starts assessing the role some officials played in the Holocaust, but the process of examining the country’s responsibility in the wartime deportation of nearly half its Jewish population appears finally to have gotten under way. Earlier this month, the Center for Historical Research and Documentation on War and Contemporary Society — a government body known by its French acronym Ceges — began examining the wartime files of various government agencies.

The study follows a Senate bill in 2002 that said Belgium should take a hard look at its past and “establish the facts and possible responsibilities of Belgian authorities in the deportation of Jews” during the Nazi occupation from 1940-1944.

Backed by the coalition government of Liberals and Socialists, the bill passed Parliament in May 2003.

Around 28,000 Belgian Jews died in the Nazi death camps, almost 50 percent of the country’s pre-war Jewish population.

Parliament gave Ceges two years to prepare its report. Ceges will assign five full-time researchers to the project, the center’s director, Jose Gotovitch, told JTA.

At the end of that period, legislators could demand a Parliamentary inquiry to search out those complicit in the deportations.

As in many countries in Nazi-occupied Europe, the story is mixed about Belgian authorities’ official involvement in the Holocaust.

Records show that both the Belgian government-in-exile in London and Queen Elisabeth of Belgium made consistent attempts to save Jewish lives during the war.

Nevertheless, the Belgian government in May 1940 took the pre-emptive step of deporting German Jewish refugees to France in order to avoid offending the German occupiers. The refugees were placed in transit camps in France before being sent to a collection point at Drancy, and then on to the death camps.

Some Belgian officials also were involved in compiling files on the country’s Jewish population, while certain municipalities such as Antwerp and Liege willingly distributed yellow stars to Jewish communities. The committee of Brussels’ mayors formally rejected the German request to make the Jews wear stars.

Unlike France, Belgium did not officially collaborate with the Nazis. Still, around half of Belgium’s Jewish population was deported, almost twice the percentage in France, which had a pre-war Jewish population of some 300,000.

Deportee figures show that almost two of every three Jews from Antwerp — where local police actively took part in Jewish round-ups on behalf of the Nazis — were killed. About 35 percent of those sent from the Brussels region were killed.

Gotovitch said this was the first time that all the historical data — including royal and governmental archives and police records — would be made available to researchers.

“We have had a Commission for War Crimes at the end of the war, and the issue of reparations for the Jewish community has also been dealt with, but we have never been able to systematically look over the whole record of the Belgian authorities,” Gotovitch said.

The commission also will have access to German files and those of the Association of Belgian Jews, the communal organization created by the Germans and often referred to as “Belgium’s Judenrat.”

When the transports began, the association encouraged Jews to report to barracks at Malines, near Brussels, from where they were sent to the death camps.

The decision to launch the two-year study has not won total support from the Jewish community. Maxime Steinberg, Belgium’s principal Holocaust historian, said it was laudable for the state to provide funds for Holocaust research, but “we don’t need this long study.”

“We’re not on terra incognita,” Steinberg told JTA. “The issue is as much an ethical problem as an historical one. The issue is what is the judgment on the behavior and the acts of Belgians on the persecutions and deportations of Belgian Jews.”

Steinberg has backed demands by the Francophone Brussels’ legislator Olivier Maignain for an immediate parliamentary inquiry into the matter, even before Ceges reports the results of its study.

“I’m also asking myself if the fact of creating a committee of experts, however reputable it is, is not a way to avoid the political debate,” Maignain told the French-language daily La Libre Belgique, adding that it was necessary to examine the past “without sectarian aforethought.”

Such comments could refer either to the Jewish community, which might be afraid of what it could learn about the association’s wartime role — or more likely, given Maignain’s political grouping, to the role played by Flemish groups in supporting the Nazis.

Joel Kotek, a Belgian Jewish academic who studies the Shoah in Europe, also said he was unimpressed by the new study.

Kotek, director of training at the Center for the Documentation of Contemporary Jewry in Paris, said the decision to entrust Ceges with the study was “a typically Belgian way of avoiding the issue.”

“Belgium has always had problems in dealing with its own history,” Kotek said, noting the lack of official research into the country’s checkered colonial past.

But there were certain advantages to the fact that Belgium had taken so long to examine its role, Kotek said.

“We’ve moved away now from the myth that all the Flemish were collaborators and all the Walloons,” or French-speakers, “were heroes. There was collaboration by the mayors in Antwerp and Liege,” Kotek said, referring to one Flemish- and one French-speaking city.

Kotek also said there was benefit in having a study sixty years on because “you need a certain distance to study things like the role of the” Jewish association.

“Passions are still open over the role of the” association, “but they are vanishing as the survivors die out,” he said.

Philippe Markiewicz, President of the Coordinating Committee of Belgian Jewish Organizations, the community’s principal umbrella body, said he opposed calls for an immediate parliamentary inquiry.

“After 60 years, we should let Ceges do its work first and present its conclusions,” he said.

To Steinberg though, it seems Belgium is again trying to evade taking responsibility or apologizing for the role some of its officials played in the Holocaust.

“This study avoids the political problem of taking responsibility,” he said. “There have been all sorts of studies into this by historians and philosophers.”

He went on to draw a comparison with France — where, after many years of denial, President Jacques Chirac in 1997 accepted French responsibility in the deportations of Jews during the Nazi occupation. Belgian Prime Minister Guy Verhofstadt so far has refused to assume such responsibility.

Kotek said he just wants a “gesture” from the Belgian government.

“It’s won’t even require much for Belgium. It’s not as if they had a collaborationist government,” he said. “Belgium doesn’t need to ask for forgiveness, just to accept some responsibility.”

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