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Monday, July 28, 2014

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Antwerp: The Jerusalem of mainland Europe

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Knight Aaron Malinsky showing pictures taken on the night of the 1941 pogrom in Antwerp at the site of the burnt synagogue and now the site of the Antwerp Holocaust Memorial. [Toby Saltzman photo]

Seeing a place is one thing, understanding it is quite another. As the world plans 100th anniversary commemorations of World War I, visitors to Europe will find stories of humanity and inhumanity that transcend the decades to World War II and today.

If history provokes cultural evolutions spurred by wars, small communities ­ like the Jewish community of Antwerp, Belgium, speak volumes about social changes.

Cultivating beneficial change in Belgium is a prime ambition of Aaron Malinsky. On a recent visit to Antwerp, I meet Aaron, who insists I use his first name. His humble demeanour belies his distinguished persona as the local rabbi, cantor and professor who was knighted by the king of Belgium for initiating peace activist initiatives among the city’s Muslims, Christians and Jews. 

Aaron suggests we meet over an Erev Shabbat lunch at Hoffy’s, a glatt kosher restaurant-cum-caterer where Esther, Moishe and Benjamin Hoffman have for 27 years been serving Machsike Hadas, the city’s chassidic hub. We lunch on heimishe dishes and enjoy the mesmerizing scene that unfolds. A parade of elegant women wearing sheitels or chapeaux, and black-coated men wearing fur-trimmed shtreimls or black hats, chatter in Yiddish while mingling over counters brimming with delicacies: savoury moussaka, stuffed cabbage rolls, gefilte fish and seasoned briskets.

Meanwhile, the back room hosts a lively German tour group boisterously toasting wine over kosher food.

Why here? “They’re curious to see where the Jewish culture that once inhabited their country has gone,” Aaron says. “Antwerp is known as the ‘Jerusalem of mainland Europe.’ We have so many Chassidim here. You don’t see that in other European communities now.”

Belgium, Aaron explains, has about 47,000 Jews – about 25,000 in Antwerp, 22,000 in Brussels. “Baruch HaShem, we don’t wear arm bands to count the population.” 

While the Brussels community includes “liberal” Jews, Antwerp has no Conservative or Reform synagogue.

“We would not allow it,” Aaron says. The two main communities are chassidic and Orthodox. The latter, with about 4,000 families, mainly belong to the Van den Nestlei Synagogue.

“Everyone speaks Yiddish here, even the Indians, who pretty well run the diamond business now,” Aaron says.

Born in Antwerp, Aaron, 46, is a descendent of the Chernobyl Rabbi. After studying in Israel to earn a master of science degree, as well as rabbinical and cantorial designations, today he teaches Jewish history, Jewish philosophy and Hebrew at the University of Antwerp, where he has documented the history of Judaism in Flanders since the first century.

These are interesting times for Antwerp, Aaron says. Once predominately Jewish, its current population of 25,000 is about 40 per cent Jewish and 60 per cent from India. While the city fares well economically as a result of having Europe’s second-biggest harbour, the world’s second-biggest oil refinery, and Europe’s biggest diamond centre, the social and dynamic structure of the Jewish community has changed.

With the recent economic crisis and mass immigration of Indian diamond traders, many wealthy Jewish families whose ancestors dominated the diamond trade for 500 years, providing diamond cutting and polishing jobs for some 30,000 people, left Belgium. Today, many Jews work at a variety of jobs, inluding plumbing and driving a taxi. The influx of Muslims, mostly from Turkey and Morocco, have children who dominate the public schools. While only 10 to 15 per cent of Brussels’ Jewish families send children to Jewish day schools, in Antwerp, 95 per cent feel compelled to do so.

After a glass of tea, Aaron leads me to meaningful sites, including the diamond bourse and adjacent Sephardi synagogue, which were bombed in 1981. Thanks to “the miracle of timing during Simchat Torah” no one was injured. The synagogue was destroyed, but its Aron Kodesh survived intact and the synagogue was rebuilt in the exact same style.

Driving on a main road, Aaron points out lanes named for the Allies who liberated Belgium: Italy, America, France, Britain, Canada. At the Holocaust monument at the corner of Vanden Nest Lei and Belgie Lei, which commemorates the scene of a 1941 pogrom in the Jewish neighbourhood where rioters burned the synagogue, trashed Torah scrolls and killed Jews, Aaron shows photographs of that event, which ultimately marked the start of mass deportations of Jews to Mechelen and Breendonk concentration camps, resulting in 26,000 deaths. Most of the survivors were hidden and helped by the Belgian resistance, many of whom have been honoured by Yad Vashem. Annual services held every year on Sept. 3 and 4 commemorate the liberation, with gratitude to Canada for sending soldiers.

En route to Antwerp’s harbour, where many Jews arrived in the mid-1860s, we see the stunningly contemporary, new Museum aan de Stroom that’s dedicated to portraying the city’s history from medieval times. Aaron explains that he helped curate the museum’s galleries dedicated to Judaism. One exhibit – called Life and Death – provokes tears. 

Passing a riveting market scene busy with chassidic men and scarved Muslim women, Aaron explains why he was knighted: in 2002, after a Muslim boy was murdered by a deranged Flemish boy, Antwerp saw an uprising of Muslims that coincided with the intifadah. Aaron rallied the Catholic UnderBishop of Antwerp and an iman from the American Union of Mosques of Antwerp to join in a public address to calm tensions. Following that, the three men collaborated on the book Trialogue and spoke to schools and groups, preaching a message of peace.

 In 2007, the king honoured each man with knighthood, designating them as a Commander of the Crown.

Aaron, who wears no emblem of knighthood, ends our tour, heading off to jail to visit Jewish prisoners before sundown.

“I love my city,” he says. “For Jewish people, the situation is changing. What we need now is parnassah, mazel.”

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