“ Address: Joods Museum van Deportatie en Verzet, Goswin de Stassartstraat 153, B-2800 Mechelen, Belgium „
When it comes to Belgian towns and cities you may not have heard of Mechelen. Located on the road from Brussels to Antwerp its a lovely little city with its soaring Gothic cathedral and ornate town hall. Unfortunately pretty little Mechelen has a skeleton in its closet, as in 1942 the town's Dossin de St. Georges military barracks were converted by the Nazis to hold Belgium's Jewish population alongside other "undesirables" such as gypsies ready to be deported to their deaths in the Concentration camps. Part of the former barracks/camp were converted in the early 1990s into a touching memorial to Belgium's Holocaust in the form of the "The Jewish Museum of Deportation and Resistance" .
I have a personal interest in the Holocaust, Jewish history and culture, as a lot of my friends in London are Jewish. I remember talking to a friend's grandmother about her life. She came from Austria in the late 30s and said to me if she had not emigrated then she would not be alive today. Its so easy to distance yourself from the horrendous images of the holocaust but that conversation mad it so real to me. When on holiday in Belgium last November I took time out from the cathedrals, canals, beer and chocolate for a spot of reflection to visit this museum.
The Tragic Facts
It is estimated that there were between 60 and 70 000 Jews in Belgium before the Second World War mostly of eastern European extraction. On May 10 1940 Germany invaded Belgium. Within a matter of months the persecution of the Jews started, as they were segregated and herded into ghettoes and made to wear the infamous yellow stars to identify their "inferiority". By July 1942 SS-Sammellager Mecheln (SS-Collection Camp Mechelen was set up under the leadership of Phuillip Schmidt. Mechelen was chosen because of its strategic links to the main Belgian cities and is railway that ran into Germany and beyond. Between July 1942 and its liberation in September 1944 24.916 Jews and 351 Gypsies were transported to the camps with only 1221 surviving the horrendous atrocities. The Jewish Museum of Deportation and Resistance was founded in 1996 to commemorate all who were affected.
The museum is located on the edge of Mechelen's town centre flanked by the inner ring road. I found the building fine but could not find the entrance, as it is discreetly tucked away in an archway. The former barrack/camp was transformed into residential accommodation in the 1970s so all I found were flats. I am not sure that if I was a Mechelen resident I could bare to live on such a spot even though the building looks perfectly ordinary perhaps even pleasant. I did spot a memorial and a wreath at the front of the building but nothing else to mark that there was a museum there. After walking round the perimeter and asking I eventually found the entrance with a small notice of its contents and opening times. Its open Sunday to Thursday 10 a.m. until 5 p.m. with a half day on Fridays. It is closed during major Jewish holidays, alongside two week in August , New Years Day and Christmas Day. The museum is free but donations are very much welcome and encouraged.
I arrived into a small lobby where a museum attendant greeted me. I was informed there was a tour in French if I wanted to join that. My French is basic so decided to view the museum alone. Luckily the interpretation , a mix of labels, panels and audio visuals were in three languages Dutch French and English so I could easily understand the exhibits.
The museum is housed on two floors on the ground level and in the basement. The displays are presented chronologically starting with the rise of he Nazis in the 1930s and continuing onto the Germans occupation of Belgium and the persecution of the Jews. I was very impressed with the presentation of the museum with official documents and newspaper articles interspersed with photos for a more human touch. Facts were clearly printed on the glass of the cabinets to give maximum impact. I found the every day photos of victims during the early 40s before imprisonment with their actual ID card integrated into the display very powerful and effective.
From there the museum explores the founding of the camp and the start of the deportations. Audio visuals were used sparingly for impact (although I could not get the English to work in a fair few) . I particularity remember an interview with a young artist who drew the scenes of terror , as Jews were rounded up to go to the Deportation Camp in Mechelen . Counterbalancing this there was a section on the Belgian Resistance Movement and the stories of those involved both the rescuers and the rescued. It was nice to read about a glimmer of hope amongst the gathering storm clouds. Finally on this level were the bold statistic of the 28 transportations from the Mechelen camp. On this level there is also a small study centre to explore the museum's archives, which I did not use.
Downstairs into the basemen and I am faced with the familiar scenes of the death camps particularity Auschwitz. Prisoner's striped garments are displayed alongside the eerie images of the inmates. I have visited Auschwitz and read a number of Holocaust biographies but still the images of hollow eyed, shaven headed skeletal people in striped clothing and piles of dead bodies in mass graves are still powerful enough to shock. I could feel tears welling up in my eyes and a lump in my throat began to form. These tears began to flow when I entered a small room with a a low ceiling covered with photos of healthy looking happy children who could easily have been my grandparents, as its the same generation An audio track in French and Dutch read through their names and the age they died. Thinking about it now a year later I still want to cry, as it was such a powerful, poignant exhibition.
I am glad I visited the Jewish Museum of Deportation and Resistance., as I knew very little about the Belgian Holocaust. This may be stating the obvious but its not a museum for entertainment , to go to the cafe and the shop (there are none. They may have sold a few booklet s in the lobby but I don't remember) and I certainly would not recommend it for Primary school children and below. Its a museum to educate and commemorate a truly shocking era in history we should never forget. Just take your hankie.
Joods Museum van Deportatie en Verzet
Goswin de Stassartstraat 153