The Holocaust Historiography Project

Belgium and its Jews During the War

by Mark Weber

A look at how German authorities treated Jews in Belgium during the years of wartime occupation is revealing because it is difficult to reconcile their policies with a German program systematically to exterminate Europe's Jews.

Belgium was quickly overrun by German military forces in May 1940, and after 18 days the country surrendered. Although the cabinet fled to London, where it established a pro-Allied government-in-exile, the country's King, Léopold III, as well as the head of government and the commander of the Belgian army, remained with their people. During the following four years of occupation, German authority was exercised through a military governor, General Alexander von Falkenhausen, while the overall administration of the country was carried out by Belgium's chief ministry officials and the regular civil service.(note 1)

At the outbreak of the war, about 90,000 Jews were living in this small western European country of some nine million people. Most were not Belgian citizens, and many were recently-arrived refugees from Germany, Austria and Poland. About 80,000 of the country's Jews were concentrated in the two largest cities, Brussels, the capital, and Antwerp, a major seaport. About three-fourths of Belgium's Jews were self-employed, and the diamond trade of Antwerp was largely in Jewish hands.(note 2)

During the months following the German takeover, many thousands of Jews fled the country, or were deported to neighboring France, so that by late 1940 only 52,000-55,000 reportedly remained in Belgium.(note 3)

'Armed Resistance'

Jews played a prominent role in Belgium's anti-German underground. As one Jewish historian later noted with pride, Jews were among the first "to take an active part in the resistance movement and in all forms of sabotage." Eventually, "many hundreds" of Jews "took part in the armed resistance." In one spectacular case in April 1943, "in open battle between the Jewish partisans and the [German] Field Police, many Germans were killed while the partisans got away without loss." Within the overall anti-German underground movement, a special "Ninth Jewish Brigade" was established. "Several weeks before the liberation [September 1944], hundreds of Jewish volunteers answered the call of the Jewish resistance organizations and took part in the final, open battle against the occupying forces."(note 4)

Jacob Gutfreind commanded the country's first Jewish terrorist group, which was organized in late 1941. Its members set fire to factories, derailed trains, attacked garages, and murdered Germans, Belgians and Jewish "informers" who collaborated with the authorities. Gutfreind and his wife were eventually caught and deported to Auschwitz. They settled in Israel after the war.(note 5)

Germans weren't the only ones who were concerned that Jews might constitute a threat to security. Following the Allied liberation of the country, British military authorities in Belgium rounded up and interned as "enemy aliens" some 2,000 Jews (apparently of German citizenship).(note 6)

Deportations

Beginning in August 1942 and continuing until July 1944, some 25,000 Jews were deported eastward from Belgium. Apparently most were transported to Auschwitz, although some were sent to the Lodz ghetto, the Theresienstadt ghetto-camp, the Bergen-Belsen camp, and elsewhere.(note 7)

In November 1942 the German Foreign Office representative in Brussels reported that some 15,000 Jews had been deported from Belgium to "the East," and that additional transports would be following. These deportees, he went on, were Jews of non-Belgian citizenship, mostly of Polish, Czech, German or Russian citizenship or origin, or stateless.(note 8)

According to some wartime reports, Jews were also deported from Belgium to the occupied Soviet territories.(note 9) In August 1942 Jews were reportedly taken by train from Belgium to a labor camp in southern Russia where they worked on building fortifications.(note 10) In October 1942 the leading Jewish community newspaper of neutral Switzerland reported that rail transports of Jews from Belgium and other western European countries had recently arrived in Riga (Latvia) before being taken further.(note 11)

Such deportations seem inconsistent with a policy to exterminate all of Europe's Jews. If the goal was simply to kill them, why would the Germans have transported Jews from western Europe to territories far to the east of Auschwitz and other alleged "death camps"?

Remarkably, many Jews in Belgium were exempt from deportation. For one thing, categorically exempted by the Germans from deportation from Belgium (as well as from France and the Netherlands) were Jews who were citizens of the United States, Britain and the British dominions, or the Latin American countries.(note 12)

More startling, the German military governor, von Falkenhausen, responded to a plea from Belgian Cardinal van Roey and the country's Queen-Mother, Elizabeth, by ordering Jews of Belgian citizenship exempt from deportation. The only exceptions were about 800 "delinquent" Belgian-citizen Jews who had refused to wear the obligatory Jewish star badge or had violated other regulations.(note 13)

The Breendonck Internment Camp

A detailed work published after the war by the World Jewish Congress and other Jewish organizations, The Black Book: The Nazi Crime Against the Jewish People, cited testimony evidence to charge that the German authorities had killed 200 persons each month in the Breendonck internment camp in Belgium, which supposedly was "more horrible than Dachau and Buchenwald were before the war." Prisoners there were reportedly also killed in a special gassing cell.(note 14) Today Breendonck is barely mentioned in the Holocaust literature, and no reputable historian credits the Breendonck gassing story,

Widely Varying Death Figures

As in the case of other countries, supposedly authoritative estimates of Jewish wartime deaths for Belgium vary greatly. According to the US government's widely publicized 1944 War Refugee Board (WRB) Report, which was submitted as an important American prosecution exhibit at the main Nuremberg trial, "approximately 50,000" Jews deported from Belgium were killed in Auschwitz-Birkenau gas chambers between April 1942 and April 1944.(note 15)

More or less consistent with this, the so-called "Anglo-American Committee of Inquiry" announced in 1946 that, out of a total of 5.7 million European Jews who perished during the war years, 57,000 were Jews from Belgium. Lucy Dawidowicz estimated that 40,000 Belgian Jews lost their lives during the war, while another Jewish Holocaust historian, Gerald Fleming, estimated 26,000.(note 16)

A 1977 report by a German government agency affiliated with the International Committee of the Red Cross reported that between August 4, 1942, and July 31, 1944, a total of 25,557 Jews (including 497 Gypsies) were deported from Belgium, of whom 1,271 returned after the war.(note 17) Raul Hilberg, a prominent Holocaust historian, concluded in his 1985 study that 24,000 Belgian Jews lost their lives during the war years, and that 40,000 Jews in Belgium survived the war.(note 18)

Historians Gerald Reitlinger and Yehuda Bauer -- apparently referring to German and Belgian records -- similarly reported that a total of 25,437 Jews were deported from Belgium, of whom 1,276 returned after the war. "More than half of the Jewish population of Belgium survived the war," noted Bauer, and Reitlinger remarked that Belgium "lost virtually none" of its "native Jewish population."(note 19)

Historians Hilberg, Bauer and Reitlinger thus agree that far more Belgian Jews survived than perished, and that the total number of Belgian Jews who perished (of all causes) during the war years is less than half the number of Belgian Jews supposedly gassed at Auschwitz-Birkenau, according to the US government's authoritative WRB Report.

Notes

  1. M. Baudot, et al, ed., The Historical Encyclopedia of World War II (New York: Facts on File, 1989), pp. 53-54; I. C. B. Dear, genl. ed., The Oxford Companion to World War II (Oxford Univ. Press, 1995), pp. 118-122; Jacob Robinson, And the Crooked Shall Be Made Straight (New York: Macmillan, 1965), pp. 238-240, 354.
  2. Lucy S. Dawidowicz, The War Against the Jews, 1933-1945 (New York: Bantam, pb. ed., 1976), pp. 491-494; Raul Hilberg, The Destruction of the European Jews (New York: Holmes & Meier, 3 vols., 1985), pp. 600-602; Gerald Reitlinger, The Final Solution: The Attempt to Exterminate the Jews of Europe (London: Sphere Books, 2nd edition, pb., 1971), pp. 367, 368 (In the 1st US edition, New York: Beechhurst Press, 1953, these are pages 342-345); Yehuda Bauer, A History of the Holocaust (New York: F. Watts, 1982), pp. 238-240; Eric J. Epstein & P. Rosen, Dictionary of the Holocaust (Westport, Conn.: Greenwood, 1997), pp. 26-27; Michael R. Marrus, Robert O. Paxton, "The Nazis and the Jews in Occupied Western Europe, 1940-1944," The Journal of Modern History, Dec. 1982 (Vol. 54, No. 4; Univ. of Chicago Press), pp. 706-707.
  3. Peter Longerich, ed., Die Ermordung der europäischen Juden: Eine umfassende Dokumentation des Holocaust, 1941-1945 (Munich and Zurich: Piper, 1990), p. 265; Raul Hilberg, The Destruction of the European Jews (1985), p. 601 (doc. NG-5219).
  4. Abusz Werber, "Jewish Resistance in Belgium," Yad Vashem Bulletin (Jerusalem), No. 22, May 1968, pp. 60-61; More than a thousand Jews in Belgium "fought with the Belgian partisans," reports Jewish historian Martin Gilbert in his Atlas of the Holocaust (New York: William Morrow, 1993), p. 110.
  5. J. Gutfreind, "The Jewish Resistance Movement in Belgium," in: Yuri Suhl, ed., They Fought Back: The Story of Jewish Resistance in Nazi Europe (New York: Crown, 1967, and, Schocken, 1975), pp. 304, 308. See also p. 182, which mentions another Jewish member of the anti-German Belgian underground, Giza Weisblum, who was arrested in 1943 and deported to Auschwitz. Weisblum moved to Israel after the war.
  6. Raul Hilberg, Destruction (1985), p. 1059.
  7. Lucy S. Dawidowicz, The War Against the Jews (Bantam, pb. ed., 1976), p. 494; R. Hilberg, The Destruction of the European Jews (1985), pp. 606-608; G. Reitlinger, The Final Solution (London: Sphere, 1971), pp. 368, 369; Martin Gilbert, Atlas of the Holocaust (New York: William Morrow, 1993), p. 110 (and map 134).
  8. Nuremberg documents NG-5209 (or NG-022) and NG-5219. P. Longerich, ed., Die Ermordung der europäischen Juden (Piper, 1990), pp. 263, 265.
  9. For example, in June 1943 the London-based Belgian government-in-exile reported (inaccurately) that "the Germans had removed nearly all 52,000 Belgian Jews to concentration camps in Germany, Poland and occupied Russia." Source: The New York Times, June 15, 1943, p. 8. Quoted in: Arthur Butz, The Hoax of the Twentieth Century (IHR, 1997), p. 82; American Jewish Year Book, 5705, Vol. 46, Copyright 1944 (Philadelphia: Jewish Publication Society of America), p. 220.
  10. "Deportation and Death: Eyewitness Testimony," Congress Weekly (New York: Am. Jewish Congress), Dec. 4, 1942, pp. 6-7. The source given for this "eyewitness" report is "Geneva, October 8, 1942." Possibly it was provided by the Geneva office of the World Jewish Congress. This "testimony" was supposedly provided by a Polish Jew who was arrested in Brussels, and was then included in the transport from Belgium to Russia. After working in Russia, he supposedly hid in a train that went to Paris.
  11. Israelitisches Wochenblatt für die Schweiz, No. 42, Oct. 16, 1942, pp. 10-11.
  12. Jacob Robinson, And the Crooked Shall be Made Straight (New York: Macmillan, 1965), pp. 22-23, 287, n. 59. (NG-183)
  13. L. S. Dawidowicz, The War Against the Jews (Bantam, 1976), p. 494; G. Reitlinger, The Final Solution (London: 1971), pp. 367, 369, 538 (In the 1st US edition, New York: 1953, these are pages 342-345, 494); Nuremberg doc. NG-5219 (cited above); Norman Rich, Hitler's War Aims, Vol. 2 (New York: Norton, 1974), pp. 187-188.
  14. Jewish Black Book Committee (World Jewish Congress, etc.), The Black Book: The Nazi Crime Against the Jewish People (New York: 1946), p. 270. A facsimile of this page is in: Carlos W. Porter, ed., Made in Russia: The Holocaust (England: HRP, 1988), p. 384;
    During the war the American Jewish Year Book told readers that Jewish "children were reported gassed at Brasschaet, north of Antwerp." American Jewish Year Book, 5705, Vol. 46, Copyright 1944 (Philadelphia: Jewish Publication Society of America), p. 220.
  15. Nov. 1944 WRB report. Nuremberg document 022-L (USA-294). Trial of the Major War Criminals Before the International Military Tribunal (Nuremberg: IMT, 1947-1949 ["blue series"]), vol. 37, p. 433. (A facsimile of this page also appears in Arthur Butz, The Hoax of the Twentieth Century, p. 207.) See also IMT "blue series" vol. 3, p. 568.
  16. Nora Levin, The Holocaust: The Destruction of European Jewry 1933-1945 (New York: Crowell, 1968), p. 715; L. S. Dawidowicz, The War Against the Jews (Bantam, 1976), p. 544; Gerald Fleming, Hitler and the Final Solution (Berkeley: Univ. of Calif., 1984), p. 193.
  17. A. de Cocatrix, Die Zahl der Nationalsozialistischen Verfolgung (Arolsen: International Tracing Service, April 1977).
  18. R. Hilberg, Destruction (1985), pp. 608, 1220, 1048.
  19. G. Reitlinger, The Final Solution (London: Sphere, 1971), pp. 367, 369, 538; Yehuda Bauer, A History of the Holocaust (New York: 1982), p. 240; Similarly, Martin Gilbert contended that a total of 25,631 Jews were deported from Belgium during the war years, of whom 24,387 were "murdered," and that 1,244 of the deportees survived. Overall, he added, 40,000 of Belgium's Jews survived the war years. See: M. Gilbert, Atlas of the Holocaust (William Morrow, 1993), pp. 110, 242 (map 315), 244 (map 316).

Bibliographic information
Author: Weber, Mark
Title: Belgium and its Jews During the War
Source: The Journal for Historical Review
Date: March/April 1999
Issue: Volume 18 number 2
Location: Page 2
ISSN: 0195-6752
Attribution: "Reprinted from The Journal of Historical Review, PO Box 2739, Newport Beach, CA 92659, USA. Domestic subscriptions $40 per year; foreign subscriptions $50 per year."
Please send a copy of all reprints to the Editor.