Belgium was invaded by German forces on 10 May 1940 and surrendered on 28 May under 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 in parts of the country until May 1945.
During the occupation, German orders resulted in the registration 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, 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 later included in the deportations from France. Anti-Jewish legislation was first enacted in October 1940, while the economic plundering of the Jews began in May 1941. In April 1941, a pogrom took place in Antwerp, organized by local anti-Jewish organizations. In May 1942, the Yellow Star became obligatory. Then, in July 1942, Jews were summoned to 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 28 convoys left the Dossin camp, mainly for Auschwitz, four convoys left for other camps: one to Ravensbrück-Buchenwald and Bergen-Belsen, and two to Vittel. Overall, more than 25,500 victims were deported. The vast majority perished in the camps.
The National Archives of Belgium and the State Archives in the Provinces, known simply as 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 the records of the various national/federal Ministries (including the Foreign Police), and 17 State Archives, which are distributed throughout the country. In 2016, the Centre for Historical Research and Documentation on War and Contemporary (CEGESOMA), was integrated into the State Archives. Founded in 1969, this federal research and documentation centre holds important Holocaust-related collections. The Directorate-General for War Victims, another important organisation, is part of the Federal Public Service for Social Security. In 2018, the Archives and Documentation section of the Directorate-General for War Victims was also integrated into the State Archives. In addition to these official archives, there are also collections in private archives and museums including, Kazerne Dossin: Memorial, Museum and Research Centre on Holocaust and Human Rights, which is located in the buildings of the former transit camp Dossin in Mechelen, the Jewish Museum of Belgium, the Auschwitz Foundation, and the Foundation of Contemporary Memory.
EHRI has identified a number of helpful publications and archival guides on Belgium (see the extensive report). At the same time as EHRI had started its identification and investigation work, the National Archives of Belgium commenced a project which aimed to produce a guide to sources on Jewish life in Belgium. EHRI closely cooperated with this project’s directors and researchers. The identification of repositories holding Holocaust-related collections dramatically improved thanks to this collaborative identification work. The EHRI portal now contains information on 122 repositories in Belgium, most of them with detailed information.
One of the most important Belgian archives for Holocaust research is Kazerne Dossin: Memorial, Museum and Research Centre on Holocaust and Human Rights. This museum and research 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 hundreds of descriptions. It is continuing this effort in order to make all its materials publicly available on a collection level.
Made up of the National Archives, 17 State Archives in the Provinces, the Centre for Historical Research and Documentation on War and Contemporary Society (CEGESOMA); and the Directorate-General for War Victims, the State Archives are another significant institution that hold Holocaust-related material. In particular, the National Archives branch in Brussels conserve the archive of the former Military Justice system, which includes all the post-war trial records. Some important city (and communal) archives also have Holocaust-related material, such as those of Brussels, Antwerp, Liège, Charleroi and Ghent. Moreover, EHRI has worked closely CEGESOMA. Collection descriptions from the Centre were selected via key-word selection and literature search (verification of bibliographies of key works on the Holocaust in Belgium) and integrated onto the Portal by EHRI. This export includes archival documents, manuscripts, interview descriptions, and photo descriptions. As for the Directorate-General for War Victims, it possesses one of the largest and most important collections on the Holocaust in Belgium from the victims’ perspective.
There are also several important private archival institutions in Belgium. Notably, the Jewish Museum of Belgium in Brussels, which holds important sources related to the victims, as do some remembrance organisations, such as the Auschwitz Foundation and the Foundation of Contemporary Memory, which collect testimonies.
Many other 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, United States Holocaust Memorial Museum holds vast materials on Jews in Belgium, both originals and copies. Their copy collection on Belgium includes copies from Kazerne Dossin, the Directorate-General for War Victims, CEGESOMA, and the National Archives (Foreigners’ Police archives, Brüsseler Treuhandgesellschaft collection, Archive of the Diamond collection and other files). The USHMM’s 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 and available archival guides
Two official research projects, commissioned by the Belgian State, that have been carried out by CEGESOMA and others, have mapped a significant proportion of Holocaust-related archives in Belgium. The first project, conducted in 2001, was about the spoliation of Jewish assets during the war. The second, the results of which were published in 2007, investigated the possible responsibility of Belgian national and local authorities in the persecution of the Jews. The major publications resulting from these projects were:
Les biens des victims des persécutions 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 as EHRI had started its identification and investigation work, the National Archives of Belgium commenced a project which aimed to produce a guide to 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. The major publication resulting from this project was:
- Pierre-Alain Tallier (dir.), Gertjan Desmet & Pascale Falek-Alhadeff, Sources pour l'histoire des populations juives et du judaïsme en Belgique/Bronnen voor de geschiedenis van de Joden en het Jodendom in België, 19de-21ste eeuw, Brussel, ARA-AGR/Avant-Propos, 2016, 1,328 p.
Before the publication of this guide, no such archival overview existed, although there were other synopses available that dealt with periodicals and publications on Jewish history (and in the case of the latter, indirectly shed light on certain primary sources, although its main focus was on 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 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 were 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, 2017, 3rd 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).
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 can sometimes find them hard to navigate. When looking for basic information about victims, local and national administrations are often in possession of personal files. The majority of Jews in Belgium were not Belgian nationals (less than 10 percent at the registration in 1940). For the non-naturalized legal residents the Belgian Foreigners’ Police kept personal or family files. These files are held in both local level institutions (the city administrations) and in the National Archives (central files). It is important to note 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 these are 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 should be noted that public administrations in Belgium were (and are still) 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 locating both victim and perpetrator sources in Belgium. Important victim sources are held by the Directorate-General War for Victims, a state institution, originally founded by the Ministry of Reconstruction and now part of the State Archives. 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 using it does not resolve the issues mentioned above.
Similar problems arise in the case of one the most important archives for the study of the perpetrators. The archives of the former Military Justice system, which hold the files of the post-war trials of war criminals and collaborators, have been transferred to the National Archives but are not publicly accessible, consultation requiring the authorisation of the Collège des procureurs généraux/College van procureurs-generaal. Access is generally granted for researchers, the individuals concerned and their descendants. A research guide and summary finding aid exist.
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-pronged 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 with know-how and assistance to provide shareable descriptions of its sources that meet international archival standards.
Working closely together with the authors and directors of the research guide on Sources pour l'histoire des populations juives et du judaïsme en Belgique/Bronnen voor de geschiedenis van de Joden en het Jodendom in België, 19de-21ste eeuw
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 over 120 repositories, most of them with detailed information.
The reason for the huge gap that had to be covered has much to do with the belated interest in 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 delayed interest was very much visible when EHRI started its activities. EHRI's activities coincided with the beginnings of a research guide to Jewish sources at the National Archives, and the opening of Kazerne Dossin, so the project started precisely at a time when the topic was finally receiving wide attention in Belgium from academic, archival and public perspectives.
Identification of collections
Due to the aforementioned challenges, the first point of call of any research on the persecution of Jews in Belgium should be Kazerne Dossin. Kazerne Dossin was originally established 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 research centre actively collects material, often private collections, related to 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 considerable effort in terms of administration and identification. Moreover, Kazerne Dossin keeps track of ongoing research and employs a team of experts in the field.
However, despite the wealth of its sources, the archives of Kazerne Dossin remained relatively unknown to the outside world until 2015 because of the limited information available via finding aids. On its website, Kazerne Dossin originally only 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. Many 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 forward for Kazerne Dossin: the number of collection descriptions provided to EHRI rose from 17 to over 220 descriptions and Kazerne Dossin is continuing 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”.
The Centre for Historical Research and Documentation on War and Contemporary Society (CEGESOMA) also holds important Holocaust collections, such as 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. Collection descriptions from 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, interview descriptions, and photo descriptions.
Sources pour l'histoire des populations juives et du judaïsme en Belgique/Bronnen voor de geschiedenis van de Joden en het Jodendom in België, 19de-21ste eeuw
This archival guide 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 Kazerne Dossin, the Directorate-General War for Victims, CEGESOMA, and the National Archives (Foreigners’ Police, 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 argumentation) 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 she made efforts to 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.