Europe, these days is rattled, its political institutions on high alert and its Jewish communities reeling with angst as security steps up at key locations. As newscasts portray events, and world leaders speak of snagging terrorists and trying to change the mindsets of youths who may be swayed to do harm, my mind veers to Mechelen, Belgium.
In this ethnically diverse city located halfway between Brussels and Antwerp is a museum that aims to open people’s eyes to conditions that provoke human rights violations, and render the Holocaust relevant today by exposing how irritated masses, perpetrators and quiet bystanders can ultimately create victims.
Flanking both sides of a river that streams to the vital port of Antwerp, Mechelen is architecturally pretty, the embellished Flemish façades of its historic buildings facing wide squares and boulevards, many lined with stylish shops and cafés. Some structures date to times when Holy Roman Empress Maria Theresa of Austria built Het Hof Habsburg in 1756 as kazerne (barracks) for her infantry. (Interestingly, the empress was infamous for her anti-Semitic idols.)
When the industrial revolution whistled into Belgium – stringing continental Europe’s first railroad from Brussels to Mechelen in 1835 – the city became a prominent manufacturing hub. After World War I, Het Hof Habsburg was renamed Kazerne Dossin after triumphant Austrian Gen. Emile Dossin. It became a prestigious training school for Belgium’s future military officers.
Between July 1942 and September 1944, because of Mechelen’s convenient rail-side location, the Nazis would choose their kazerne as a convenient assembly depot for Jews from Belgium and Northern France who would be summoned with edicts for labour mobilization, not suspecting the “final solution.”
Ultimately, here around 25,500 Jews and 352 Roma were thrust into 28 rail transports bound for Auschwitz-Birkenau. The Nazis’ explicit records note that 583 people escaped. One of them was Joseph Peretz who penned his experiences in his memoir The Endless Wait, and lives in Toronto today. Peretz’s remarkable saga encompasses his childhood in Antwerp, his happy antics as a handsome officer-in-training in Kazerne Dossin, his multiple escapes from incarcerations in France and Belgium, and the joyous love story of his marriage to Josie and birth of daughter Kitty. [Sadly, Josie died a month ago. Peretz turned 94 on Jan. 29.]
There was no train in sight on the day I visited, yet – touching my toe to the rail that curves past Het Hof Habsburg – I imagined the rail rumbling with terror as trains rolled into Mechelen at the height of Belgium’s occupation during World War II.
Stepping into the courtyard where budding soldiers once practised military strategies, I imagined rows of families clinging together, parents and children wearing tags numbered for transport cars, their possessions hurled aside. Bile curled up inside me when my guide explained: “This entire three-storey building block languished until the 1980s when a section was turned into condominium lofts. Everyone in Mechelen knew what had happened here, yet later buyers ‘pretended’ they had no idea.”
Condominiums aside, today the rest of the infamous edifice is the Museum of Deportation and Resistance. Literally a witness to history, it houses a Holocaust research data base brimming with the Nazis’ own meticulous documentation of every Belgian who entered Kazerne Dossin in preparation for annihilation. Among the few who returned to Mechelen, the late Natan Ramet was a driving force in the creation of the museum. He was knighted by King Albert II in 2005.
Across the way stands the new Kazerne Dossin Memorial, Museum and Documentations Centre on Holocaust and Human Rights built in 2012, its pathway marked by a parade of towering poles with banners showing faces of people. Upon entering the building – where a three-storey interior wall shows more than 18,000 faces of lost Mechelen residents, along with spaces for people to add missing pictures – visitors learn the grave consequences of complicit bystanders who “followed orders” and the worth of valiant activists who formed the Jewish resistance.
When the Nazis organized the Association of Jews in Belgium (AJB) to summon Jews on the pretext of compulsory mobilization of labour, and subsequently started forced roundups in 1942, Antwerp’s mayor co-operated but the mayor of Brussels resisted commands and some districts refused to enforce the wearing of the yellow Magen David.
Kazerne Dossin’s exhibits, artifacts, cartoons, sculptures and videos speak of global concerns, among them issues of refugees, Chinese dissidents, genocide in Africa and Armenia, as well as discrimination based on race, gender and sexuality.
Beyond the museum’s solemn stature, Mechelen is delightful to explore, its river boardwalk, main squares and cafés lively with a cosmopolitan mix of people whose chatter mingled English, French and Flemish dialects, all reflecting a peaceful sense of integration. Wandering through a labyrinth of narrow streets, I arrived at a market that seemed a world unto itself: most of the merchants and shoppers had olive-coloured skin and spoke a different language; the women wore headscarves.
My guide explained, “These are Muslims from Morocco who live in clusters scattered throughout Belgium. They dominate our Sunday market.” Imbibing the scenes and scents as I strolled among the stalls, I felt comfortable, with no sense foreboding the events of today.
Mechelen may not headline itineraries for people eager to experience Belgium’s resplendent historic sights and new museums in Brussels and Antwerp, the poignant war commemorative sites in Ypres, the scenic canal-side enclaves of Ghent and Bruges, or the gorgeous Ardennes wilderness, but it’s worth a side trip for Kazerne Dossin.