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Case Study:

The Transit Camp for Jews in Mechelen: The Antechamber of Death

Last modified: 24 November 2014
Laurence Schram

February 2008

Cite this item

Laurence Schram, The Transit Camp for Jews in Mechelen: The Antechamber of Death, Online Encyclopedia of Mass Violence, [online], published on 6 February 2008, accessed 29 November 2014, URL : http://www.massviolence.org/The-Transit-Camp-for-Jews-in-Mechelen-The-Antechamber-of, ISSN 1961-9898

 Context

The neutrality of Belgium came to an end on May 10, 1940 with the German invasion, and subsequent conquest of the Low Countries. Hundreds of thousands of civilians fled toward France before the oncoming German army. After 18 days of hostilities, the Belgian army surrendered. Of its 600,000 soldiers, 225,000 were taken prisoner. 1,680 later died in captivity, but over 160,000 others, mostly Flemish, were gradually released in the context of Hitler’s pan-Germanic policy.

The unconditional capitulation of Belgium was signed on May 28, 1940. The Belgian government took up residence in London whilst the King of the Belgians, Leopold III, gave himself up and was finally placed under house arrest in Belgium. Governmental duties were entrusted to the Secrétaires-généraux (the “Secretaries-General,” the highest-ranking Belgian State civil servants). They were meant to always respect and uphold the Belgian constitution and laws. They pursued a policy of “passive execution” (a concept elaborated by legal experts in reference to the question juive, or “Jewish issue”) in their relationship with the German occupying authorities, who took care to be diplomatic in order to obtain “loyal” cooperation from the Belgian administration. Thus, the fact that the Belgian constitution acts as a brake against racist policies did not, in fact, prevent the Belgian authorities from implementing anti-Semitic measures against the Jewish population.

A German military government was instituted for Belgium and Northern France under General von Falkenhausen. Meanwhile, repression was entrusted to the Sicherheitspolizei-Sicherheitsdienst or Sipo-SD (the combined SS intelligence service and security police), which opened the internment camp of Breendonk, Belgium in September 1940. Belgian political life was basically bipolar, divided between the Catholic and Socialist parties. The parties which advocated collaboration with the Germans, such as the VNV or Vlaams Nationaal Verbond (Flemish National Union) led by Staf de Clercq, and Rex, led by Léon Degrelle, only had the support of a minority of the population.

The VNV was formed as a result of a radicalization of Frontism, which was a movement of rebellion of Flemish soldiers against their French-speaking officers during World War I. The main elements of the program of this pro-Nazi party were the linguistic issue, the mystical usage of the concepts of people and of race, and the demands either for independence for Flanders, or for the creation of a Germanic, pan-Dutch state, as well as anti-Semitism.

Rex originated from Catholic, reactionary and French-speaking youth. It had no clear-cut program, and was content with denouncing political scandals. It also demanded the suppression of democratic political parties in favor of a single party, run by a supreme leader. Rex obtained 21 seats in the 1936 elections, but failed to sustain this success in the elections of 1937. This defeat led the movement to become increasingly fascist. However, the zeal of the partisans of collaboration with the Germans did not compensate for their numerical inferiority. This was particularly clear in the implementation of the Judenpolitik (the Nazi policy against the Jews of Europe). In fact, there were fewer than 20 German SS (Schutzstaffel, members of a vast Nazi elite paramilitary organization) involved in the “Final Solution” in Belgium (Klarsfeld & Steinberg, 1980:23-24). Consequently, the Nazis were not in a position to do without the Belgian administrative authorities’ “collaboration.”

Between October 28, 1940 and June 1, 1942, 17 anti-Jewish decrees were promulgated by the military Governor of Belgium and Northern France. Jews had to be counted; they were forbidden to work in the media or as civil servants, magistrates or teachers. The removal of Jews from the economy was highly effective: companies and businesses belonging to Jews were identified, then liquidated (sold) or “aryanized” (confiscated and transferred to non-Jews); forced labor was also used. Jews were forced into an “administrative ghetto”: they were forced to remain at home during the hours of a curfew aimed specifically at them, their children were excluded from the educational system, and they were forced to wear the yellow star.

The Germans entrusted the “Secretaries-General” with setting up the implementation measures necessary to enforce these decrees. They subsequently passed on the German decisions to inferior administrative levels, to provinces, cities and municipalities, which contributed to their application and, therefore, to setting up the system for the future deportation of Jews.

Once the trap was set, the deportation of the Jews of Western Europe (including Belgium) was organized. On June 11, 1942, Theodor Dannecker, Willy Zoepf and Kurt Asche, who were respectively the Judenreferenten (Nazi intelligence officers in charge of special units responsible for deporting Jews) of Paris, The Hague and Brussels, were called to Berlin by Adolf Eichmann. At the time, he was head of Section IV B4 for Jewish Affairs at the Reichsicherheitshauptamt or RSHA (Headquarters of the Reich Security Services). They decided that a first group of 10,000 Jews should immediately be deported from Belgium (Klarsfeld, 1977:43-45), and estimated that around 10% of them might not be fit for work.

At the beginning of July 1942, the German general Eggert Reeder, head of the Military Administration, decided to temporarily exempt Jews holding Belgian citizenship from deportation, in order to avoid any potential reactions from the Belgian authorities (Politische Archiv des Auswärtigen Amts, Inland II A/B (5602), Telegramm (G. Schreiber) von Von Bargen, Brüssel, Dienststelle des A.A., 09/07/1942, Nr. 602 v 9.7 Auf nr 788 +) v. 29.6). Only 6% of the 70,000 Jews living in Belgium had Belgian nationality. The Military Government of Belgium - Northern France under the commandment of General Alexander von Falkenhausen (Click to enlarge the image) The Military Government of Belgium - Northern France under the commandment of General Alexander von Falkenhausen This particularity was due to the fact that the vast majority of the Jewish community had recently immigrated to Belgium. 44% of these immigrants had fled Poland, mainly between 1920 and 1930. Between 1933 and 1939, another 12,000 Jewish refugees had arrived from the German Reich.

On July 15, 1942 General Harry von Craushaar, deputy head of the German military administration, instructed SS-Sturmbannführer (Major) Philipp Schmitt, who was in charge the Breendonk camp, to organize a transit camp for Jews in the city of Mechelen (Auditorat Militaire, Schmitt Trial, Affidavit concerning the creation of the transit camp of Mechelen, under the responsibility of Philipp Schmitt, Brussels, July 15, 1942).

The General Dossin de Saint Georges Barracks in Mechelen was an obvious choice as a location. The Dossin Barracks had been built in 1756 halfway between Brussels and Antwerp, in an area where almost all of the Jews of Belgium lived. The railroad between the two cities passed near the barracks, which was also situated near the junction of this railway with the eastbound line toward Louvain, and Germany. In the nearby Auffanglager (literally, “reception camp”) of Fort Breendonk,various categories of prisoners were held, including political prisoners, members of the anti-German resistance, common law criminals, draft dodgers and “asocial” persons – as well as Jews, up until the end of July 1942. The proximity of this camp to the Dossin Barracks led the occupying authorities to conclude that on the security level, the environment was relatively neutral and that the presence of detainees would not provoke any particular agitation among the local population, since they had not reacted thus to events at Fort Breendonk. Finally, the barracks consisted of a square building with three floors, surrounding a courtyard, and it was big enough to hold a thousand detainees.

Summer 1942: the assembly camp at Mechelen after the arrival of those caught during the night (Click to enlarge the image) Summer 1942: the assembly camp at Mechelen after the arrival of those caught during the night

By July 27, 1942 the Mechelen transit camp was operational and received its first prisoners. This exceptional document shows new detainees arriving at the Dossin barracks. The photograph was presumably taken at the end of the summer of 1942, when massive round-ups and arrests took place.

 Instigators and Perpetrators

The German military administration made the Dossin Barracks available to the Sipo-SD. The anti-Jewish section of the Sipo-SD (II C) took charge of the transit camp for Jews. Nevertheless, the first commander of the camp, SS Major Schmitt, was not a member of this section. He was selected as Commander of the new camp on account of his brutally efficient record as commander of Fort Breendonk. He maintained order in both camps, which were 15 kilometers apart, by the use of terror and violence. He relied on Rudolf Steckmann, who was his main deputy in both Breendonk and Mechelen, and on Karl Mainshauzen, who was responsible for the staff, both German and Belgian, and both Aryan and Jewish in the transit camp. Schmitt did not hesitate to set his German shepherd dog on the prisoners. The camp was administrated by about a dozen German SS, backed up by a similar number of Flemish SS. Until the end of December 1942, the camp was guarded by Wehrmacht (regular German army) troops. In 1943, these duties were taken over by a Flemish SS company which had been put at the disposal of the camp commander. Some 60 German and Belgian SS were enough to run the camp.

The administrative and maintenance staff was composed of Jewish detainees, some 30 of which had been arrested during a raid on July 22, on the train from Brussels to Antwerp. The Mechelen camp had not opened yet in the Dossin Barracks, so they were sent to Fort Breendonk, including the women in the group, which was exceptional. They were transferred to Mechelen on July 27, and arrived a few hours before the arrival of the first inmates, who had received a summons from the Association of Jews in Belgium or AJB (a Judenrat which had been set up by the Germans on November 25, 1941), supposedly for work. The AJB was later put in charge of the supplies for detainees in the Dossin Barracks, which involved running services such as service “colis” (“package distribution”), Assistance spéciale Mechelen (“Special Assistance for Mechelen”) and Interventions.

At the Aufnahme (Reception), multilingual Jewish secretaries worked under the stern supervision of SS-Sturmscharführer (SS rank equivalent to a Sergeant-Major) Max Boden, a former policeman and member of the anti-Jewish Sipo-SD section. Here, newly arrived Jews were placed in different groups, such as those to be deported, those made to work as camp staff, or those who would be subjected to further investigation. The new inmates were then registered and their names were added to the deportation lists. They were issued with a little cardboard notice, on a card which had to be worn around the neck, containing information pertaining to their status in the camp, or details of their future deportation. Their luggage was searched and their personal identification papers were confiscated; under Schmitt’s administration, the prisoners’ papers were destroyed. This deprived them of their identity.

New internees were also subjected to an enquiry which, until September 1943, was led by Erich Krüll, the civilian representative of the Brüsseler Treuhandgesellschaft (the financial organization in charge of the management and liquidation of the goods confiscated from Jews). Krüll made the prisoners sign a declaration transferring their possessions to the German Reich. He also tried to extract information from them about any assets or property they might own.

Upon their arrival, many prisoners were subjected to physical searches performed by the Belgian or German SS; this often degenerated into gratuitous violence against the male prisoners, and to groping and indecent assaults against the women. It was not until 1943, when Johannes (Hans) Frank succeeded Schmitt as commander of the camp, that female prisoners were searched by other women, either a Jewish detainee or the sister of a Flemish SS.

Under the command of his predecessor, Philipp Schmitt, the SS broke the Jews, both physically and morally, from the first day they arrived at the camp. The SS satisfied their sadistic and perverted instincts without undergoing any punishment: Commander Schmitt did not consider the treatment of Jews under his command in any other way.

On March 9, 1943, SS Adjutant-major Frank, a former policeman and a member of section II of the Sipo-SD in Brussels, replaced Schmitt as commander of the Dossin Barracks. Commander Schmitt and several of his subordinates had organized various workshops in which clothing, leather goods, etc. were made, and had embezzled the profits; Frank had denounced Schmitt for this. Though he lost his position as commander of Mechelen, Schmitt remained in command of Fort Breendonk. His accomplices did not all receive the same punishment: Steckmann accompanied Schmitt to Fort Breendonk, whilst Second Lieutenant Mainzhausen was sent to the Russian Front.

The ferocity of the Schmitt era was followed by a period of lesser violence under the apparently more moderate Frank. Conditions improved slightly for the Jewish prisoners, food became a little more abundant, packages were delivered intact to their recipients, and some detainees were even allowed to have visitors. Stoves were used for heating again in the dormitories, and the working hours in the few remaining workshops were reduced quite a bit. However, under Frank’s command, the camp was confronted with new problems, due to a slower rate of deportation. It took longer to form the deportation convoys, so the detainees stayed longer in the Mechelen camp. This resulted in overcrowding, the deterioration of hygiene and the development of contagious diseases, such as scabies and impetigo. This relative improvement of conditions only involved the Jewish prisoners, however, and not the small number of Gypsies of the January 15, 1944 convoy.

During the night of September 3-4, 1944 the SS and their henchmen left the Dossin Barracks, fleeing in expectation of the arrival of Allied troops and leaving the 527 remaining prisoners behind.

 Victims

The Sipo-SD used the pretext of having Jews work in Germany in order to gather the Jews destined to the “Final Solution” in the Dossin Barracks. All told, more than 27,000 Jews and 351 Gypsies – which was exceptional – were interned in the camp.

26,053 people were deported from Mechelen. 28 train convoys were sent to Auschwitz-Birkenau, bearing 25,834 deportees, including the 351 Gypsies. Women and children made up over half of the prisoners in these convoys, which included 10,491 women (of which 10,390 were Jewish and 101 were Gypsies) and 4,259 children under 15 years of age (of which 4,094 were Jewish and 165 were Gypsies). 1,279 men from Convoys VI to IX and XII to XIII were taken off the trains at Kosel to be put to work in forced labor camps for Jews. 567 persons succeeded in escaping from the trains.

Upon their arrival in Auschwitz-Birkenau, 8,115 of the Jewish and Gypsy deportees (including 2,822 Jewish women) were selected for the concentration camp and registered. 15,873 Jews were gassed as soon as they got off the train outside the concentration camp. These victims were never registered. Apart from a few rare exceptions, all the Jewish children under 15 years of age were murdered upon arrival. Overall, 74% of the Jewish women and their children were immediately put to death in this way. This was the essence of genocide: to prevent a human group from having a future, it is essential to prioritize the elimination of those group members who are bearers of the future – women and children.

All Gypsies, including the women and children, were tattooed with a registration number and cooped up in the “Family Camp” of Birkenau, where people were left to die (Steinberg, Dec. 2002). They were not specifically the target of genocide, but their fate was no better than if they had been. Their survival rate at Auschwitz was even lower than that of the Jews: 4.3%, as opposed to 5.1%. By 1945, 44% of the Jewish population of Belgium had been exterminated. In a single convoy, the small Gypsy community lost 70% of its members. The repression of the Gypsies was motivated by racist policies of sedentarization and social exclusion, and was led by the local police authorities as well as by the Nazis.

Between July 27 and September 3, 1942, the Germans compelled the Association des Juifs en Belgique or A.J.B. (Association of the Jews in Belgium) to distribute almost 12,000 Arbeitseinsatzbefehlen (work orders). As a result, 3,956 persons reported to Mechelen (Schram, 2004:336). The Germans had estimated that 300 Jews would respond to these orders every day; in fact, this quota was never met (Klarsfeld & Steinberg, 1980:33). The strategy of calling Jews to work was abandoned permanently on September 3, 1942.

As soon as the Sipo-SD observed this was inefficient, they opted for more straightforward and aggressive tactics. Between August 15 and September 22, 1942, they organized five large-scale operations: four big round-ups were carried out in Antwerp (3,222 victims) and one in Brussels (641 victims) (Steinberg, 1984:195-222 and Saerens, 2000:601-637). On September 11, 511 Jews were also taken prisoner in Northern France, mainly near Lille.

In a little over a month, 4,374 persons were transferred to Mechelen following these big raids. The element of surprise quickly wore off. The Jews soon realized that this blind violence would spare no one, regardless of age or state of health, and massively went into hiding.

The last big round-up took place during the night of September 3-4, 1943 and exclusively targeted Jews holding Belgian citizenship. Up until then, they had been exempted from deportation, so most of them had felt secure enough not to go into hiding. Also, the release of 143 and 160 Belgian nationals from the Mechelen camp on June 26 and 29, 1943 (Steinberg, 1986:219), had allayed their fears further. In the end, 794 Jews holding Belgian nationality were deported on Convoy XXIIB.

In the long run, individual arrests resulting from manhunts and betrayals led to the deportation of more Jews than did the mass round-ups, and over half the Jews deported from Belgium were victims of the first method. The period during which the techniques of work orders, mass round-ups and individual arrests were used simultaneously was the most deadly: in 100 days, 16,873 people were deported to Auschwitz. Only 385 survived.

Alongside the extermination process linking Mechelen to Auschwitz-Birkenau, 4 marginal convoys, which were exceptions to the “Final Solution,” including 218 Jewish deportees, were sent to concentration camps. On December 13, 1943, 132 Jews, mostly Turks and Hungarians were deported in this way. The men were sent to Buchenwald and the women and children to Ravensbrück. On April 19, 1944, 14 Hungarian Jews were also deported from Mechelen to Bergen-Belsen. Finally, Jews who were citizens of belligerent Allied countries (such as the USSR, the UK, the USA, Paraguay …) were sent to the internment center of Vittel, France; 29 of them were transferred on February 23, 1944 and 43 of them on June 20, the same year. Their survival rate was 58%.

 Witnesses

Published accounts of life in the Mechelen transit camp are rare. Most of the deportees only spent a few days in Mechelen on their way to Auschwitz-Birkenau, and compared to the horror they experienced in the latter camp, their imprisonment in Mechelen seemed quite bearable. Consequently, it was usually rather toned down in the victims’ testimony.

Two witnesses gave a detailed account of daily life in Mechelen. Joseph Hakker’s authoritative La Mystérieuse Caserne Dossin à Malines (The Mysterious Dossin Barracks in Mechelen) was first published in 1944. Hakker was a pastry chef of Dutch origin, and was 56 years old when he successfully escaped from Convoy XVIII. He described all aspects of camp life: arrival, accommodation, hygiene, hierarchy, violence... He gave his first testimony regarding the “deportation camp for Jews” to the clandestine newspaper Le Coq Victorieux (“The Victorious Rooster”), as early as July 1943.

Salle 1 was probably published immediately after the war by Hélène Beer-Horowicz. She was interned in Mechelen for several months and released in April 1944. She narrates her life in the camp, which was marked by a succession of departing convoys, and she wavered between anguish and hope.

In fact, judicial sources, such as written reports of witness interrogations and legal statements by the accused and their victims, tend to be the most complete sources of information on the history of the camp. Many women have recounted their arrival in the camp. They underwent abusive physical searches, far beyond the degree necessary to verify what they were carrying. Stripped naked in public and humiliated, they were subjected to violence, indecent assault and groping. SS Erich Krüll, or whichever SS were present, committed sexual abuse against the female detainees.

Prior to the departure of Convoy VIII, the SS humiliated the Orthodox Jews by cutting off their beards and payot (hair growing from the temples, often worn long and curled by Yemenite and Hasidic Jewish men), drawing swastikas on their tallitot (prayer shawls), and setting fire to their Torah scrolls and religious books. They forced their victims to dance around the pile of burning books whilst carrying the old Rabbi Gelernter on a chair above their heads. This scene appears on two of the four existing photographs of the Mechelen camp taken during this period, one of which is this:

From September 1942, the assembly camp at Mechelen: whilst awaiting deportation, detainees of the 8th Transport are humiliated (Click to enlarge the image) From September 1942, the assembly camp at Mechelen: whilst awaiting deportation, detainees of the 8th Transport are humiliated A scene of humiliation of rabbis and Orthodox Jews in the Dossin barracks courtyard, shortly before they were deported on Convoy VIII, on September 8, 1942.

During a gymnastics session intended as a punishment, Schmitt set his German Shepherd dog on a 20-year-old prisoner, Herman Hirsch, who was bitten so severely that he had to be transferred to the Mechelen town hospital. Gangrene set in and one of his legs had to be amputated. He was discharged from hospital after more than 6 months and brought back to the barracks the day before the departure of Convoy XXI.

During the regular “feet visit” (hygiene inspection) an inmate, Bernard Vander Ham, was punished by Max Boden and Poppe, a Flemish SS. He was beaten, sprayed with cold water and left to stand in the barracks courtyard throughout the night. As a result, he died on April 5, 1943. He was the only prisoner who died in Mechelen as a direct result of ill-treatment.

As her parents were being put on Convoy XX, on April 19, 1943, Berthe Israels, a young, slightly feebleminded girl, had hysterics. Screaming and struggling, she managed to get out of the barracks to join her parents. The SS reacted violently, especially Max Boden. They dragged her by the hair back to the barracks and beat her fiercely.

After the mass round-up of Belgian Jews during the night of September 3-4, 1943, a group of prisoners were taken from Antwerp to Mechelen (a 20-kilometer trip) in a hermetically sealed truck. The 20-km journey took more than 2 hours; the two drivers stopped en-route for “refreshment.” On arrival at the camp, when the truck doors were opened, 9 of the 145 prisoners had died from asphyxiation.

Many witnesses were struck by the terrible treatment of the Gypsies. They were locked up in the attics of the barracks and isolated from the other detainees. They were not allowed to receive packages from outside the camp, and as a result they were starving. They slept on straw mattresses, had no access to the toilets and or to hospital care. Their daily exercise was limited to one hour’s time and was often a painful and violent experience: three musicians were forced to play music while the women were beaten by the SS. At the end of the walk, they were locked in the attics again.

 Memories

At the end of World War II, Jewish survivors of deportation were isolated. Their families had been decimated, their health was poor, and they had lost their homes and possessions. They were without money and without work. They had to overcome their physical and psychological state of weakness and reintegrate into the society from which they had been excluded, find work on a job market they had been banned from, and learn to live again.

In 1945, the 1,206 Jewish and 15 Gypsy survivors of Auschwitz were lost in the mass of 30,000 ex-political prisoners and resistance fighters returning from captivity in other concentration camps or places of detention. The Jews were too much of a minority and their testimony was ignored, while that of the much more numerous ex-political prisoners and resistance fighters was heard. The latter group was perceived as having actually struggled against “Nazi barbarity,” while the Jews had been deported solely because of their identity. Society was much more receptive to the stories of “heroes” than to those seen as “sheep.” Furthermore, the narratives of the concentration camp survivors were received with doubt, disbelief and suspicion by the general public, which was unable to conceive of such experiences.

Apart from the ephemeral Association des Anciens Détenus de la Caserne Dossin de Malines (Association of the former Detainees of the Dossin Barracks in Mechelen), the concentration camp survivors lacked organized representation. The absence of State recognition of their specific status as victims did not encourage the emergence of survivors’ organizations. Nevertheless, the Amicale des Ex-Prisonniers Politiques d’Auschwitz-Birkenau, Camps et Prisons de Silésie (Association of the ex-Political Prisoners of Auschwitz-Birkenau, Camps and Prisons of Silesia) was constituted in 1946. It represented the “survivors of the camps of Auschwitz, Birkenau, Gross-Rosen, Gross-Strehlitz, Monowitz, Blechhammer and other extermination centers, and their legal beneficiaries,” (Le Soir, January 19, 1947) at the trial of the commander of Auschwitz, Rudolf Höss. However, as the name suggests, this association was biased in favor of those who had been imprisoned for political reasons, based on acts of resistance, to the detriment of the racially motivated deportations from Mechelen (Le Soir, April 19, 1947). In 1980 “The Auschwitz Foundation” originated from the association. The new Foundation was a study and documentation center on life in the concentration camps.

This denial of the fate of the persons deported for “racial” motives was also manifested through the post-war history of the Dossin Barracks: from September 1944 until April 15, 1946, the camp was used as an internment centre for inciviques (persons who collaborated with the Germans). Afterward, it was used by the Belgian army until March 1975, when they finally vacated the premises. The camp was totally abandoned and its buildings slowly began to disintegrate. The local Jewish community made no claim on the camp for memorial purposes, and was not disturbed by a project to destroy the barracks.

As the question of German reparations was raised, the Jewish survivors formed the Union des Déportés Juifs et Ayants-Droit de Belgique (Union of the Jewish Deportees of Belgium and their Beneficiaries) in 1953, in order to defend their interests. The issue of remembrance slowly came to light. The first pilgrimage to Mechelen took place in September 1956. But in Belgium, remembering the Holocaust came slowly and belatedly.

In 1961, the trial of Adolf Eichmann stimulated people’s consciences a little. But it was not until 1979 and the Lischka Trial, in Cologne, Germany, that the name of the head of the Sipo-SD in Brussels, Ernst Ehlers, appeared. He later committed suicide six weeks before the opening of his trial in Kiel in 1980. This trial finally led to some understanding of the specific fate reserved for the Jews of Belgium by the Nazi regime. The Jewish community realized the importance of the Dossin Barracks in terms of remembrance, and reacted. It took ten years for the Union des Déportés Juifs de Belgique (Union of the Jewish Deportees of Belgium) and the Consistoire central israélite de Belgique (the Jewish Central Consistory of Belgium, a body in charge of deliberating on the Jewish community’s affairs in the country) to succeed in their efforts to purchase a small part of the Dossin Barracks. A further seven years passed before the Jewish Museum of Deportation and Resistance (JMDR) could be opened to the public. In the meantime, the former transit camp had been converted into a housing development… The JMDR was opened in November 1996, and the historical and pedagogical quality of its exhibits drew increasing numbers of visitors: 24,000 in 1997, and over 34,000 in 2006.

In 2001, Patrick Dewaele, who was Minister-president of Flanders (the head of government of that region) at the time, put forward the idea of turning the museum into a prestigious “Flemish Holocaust Museum.” An academic committee composed of local researchers proposed an ambitious project for a museum devoted to violations of human rights in general. Dewaele’s successor, Yves Leterme rejected the project and is now promoting the idea of expanding the current museum. The Jewish specificity of the museum does not seem to be in question any more.

As for remembrance of the Gypsies, it is practically non-existent. The few remaining Gypsy survivors of concentration camps were not given a place in commemorative events until the 1990s. They are too small a minority to be able to make themselves heard, and even less so, to stand up for their rights. A memorial plaque commemorating the deportation of Gypsies was added to the façade of the Dossin Barracks on June 3, 1995, at the request of the Union des Déportés Juifs et Ayants-Droit de Belgique and of the Vlaams Overleg Woonwagenwerk (Flemish Consultation Association for Nomads). The main priority of the second association, constituted in 1977, was to find a solution to problems linked to campsites (reception, administrative procedures, fitting out sites, schooling…). This organization federates different groups of nomads including Roms and Sinti, and seeks to act as an intermediary between them and the Belgian authorities. Its influence is limited and the remembrance of deported Gypsies is not its main priority. The “ASBL Rom – Sinti” was constituted on December 20, 2002 to represent and defend the interests of Gypsies residing in Belgium. However, once again, its concerns are mostly material in nature. These organizations suffer from the fact that they are not representative enough of the Gypsy groups they defend, and from a lack of recognition by these groups.

 General and Legal Interpretations of the Facts

In Belgium, Johannes Frank was only subjected to a preliminary investigation and hearing (instruction). The Auditorat Militaire (Military Hearing) called this 1946 case “Dossier Malines” (“Mechelen file”); it dealt solely with what took place in the Dossin Barracks. However, its media impact was limited. The case against Frank was rather weak. He defended himself by stating that the living conditions of the Mechelen detainees improved under his command, which in fact, was confirmed by the various witness statements. Furthermore, it is true that conditions in Mechelen, which was merely a transit camp on the way to death camps, did not seem too bad compared to life in the “Hell of Breendonk” or in Auschwitz-Birkenau. Frank’s trial eventually took place in Arnhem, Holland, in June 1949: it was held in the country where the charges against him were gravest. Frank had hastily left Belgium in September 1944 and returned to active service in the Netherlands. His actions in Mechelen were considered less serious than the crimes that he had committed in the Netherlands from September 1944. He was found guilty and sentenced to 6 years in prison. However, he was released early, in 1950, and returned to Essen, Germany.

The case against Philipp Schmitt was mainly centered on the Breendonk camp and consequently, the abuse, violence and fraud that he committed in Mechelen were of secondary importance for the prosecution. The evidence and witness statements of ex-detainees from the Dossin Barracks were marginal in comparison to those collected from the ex-prisoners of Breendonk. As in the Nuremberg trials, the persecution of Jews was a subsidiary issue. Commander Schmitt had been arrested in Rotterdam in November 1945, brought back to Belgium and jailed until his trial in 1949. The opening of this decisive trial was delayed for four years due to the fact that Belgian law had to be amended beforehand, in order to permit Belgian courts to judge German army officers. Tried by the War Council of Antwerp, the former commander of Breendonk and Mechelen denied the charges and maintained that he had merely executed orders from Berlin. He was found guilty of 57 murders, of the illegal arrest of 35 Jews and of instigating (and executing) numerous physical attacks on inmates (Auditorat Militaire, Schmitt Trial, Judgment: 57-58). He was sentenced to death on November 29, 1949. He pleaded for clemency, hoping to have the death sentence commuted to life imprisonment; this plea was rejected. He appealed to the Cour de cassation (the highest appellate court), but it confirmed the previous ruling. Schmitt was brought before a firing squad in Antwerp (Hoboken) on August 9, 1950. The particularity of the Schmitt trial was that he was the only German Nazi to be executed in Belgium for war crimes, after the Second World War.

On the eve of Schmitt’s execution, Max Boden’s trial ended. Boden, who had been responsible for Aufnahme (“Admissions,” i.e. admitting prisoners to the Mechelen camp) was sentenced to 12 years’ imprisonment. He appealed this verdict and on December 5, 1950, the appeal was upheld and his sentence was reduced to 8 years. The case against Boden was centered on the humiliation, sexual offences and violence against prisoners during the physical searches of new arrivals to the camp, as well as the death of Bernard Vander Ham due to ill-treatment, and the brutal treatment of Berthe Israels.

On November 26, 1980, “the trial of the ‘Final Solution’ of the Jewish Question” in Belgium began in Kiel, Germany (Klarsfeld & Steinberg, 1994: 611). After the main person accused, Ernst Ehlers, committed suicide on October 4, 1980, Kurt Asche, who had been in charge of “Jewish Affairs,” stood in the dock alone. He was accused of being an accessory to murder. He remained silent throughout the trial, only stating that he had merely obeyed Ehlers’ orders and that he was totally unaware of the final destination of the deported Jews. The Kiel court found Asche guilty of having been an accessory to the murder of at least 10,000 Jews, and for his part in the deaths of the majority of the deportees (Kiel Trial, Judgment: 96). On July 8, 1981 he was sentenced to 7 years’ imprisonment. The court justified its decision by adding that the sentence might seem light, but the judges had taken Asche’s advanced age into account. Indeed, he died while he was still in prison. The court’s main concern was that justice be done (Kiel Trial, Judgment: 102-103).

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