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

Last modified: 21 February 2008
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 24 July 2014, URL : http://www.massviolence.org/The-Transit-Camp-for-Jews-in-Mechelen-The-Antechamber-of, ISSN 1961-9898

 B. 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.

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