Many courageous IJC members and guests came out on a recent rainy Sunday to learn about Jewish life in Brussels, starting in the Marollen, writes IJC member Imke Roebken.
The Marollen was once an important centre of Jewish life in Brussels. Jewish immigrants settled there especially in the 1920s while more arrived from Germany and Austria between 1933 and 1938. The number of Jewish inhabitants and refugees in Belgium at that rime range from 60,000 to 100,000, with Brussels home to one-third to 50% of them. In 1939 there were at least 20,000 refugees from Germany.
Daniel Weyssow, author and responsible for the Marollen project at the Fondation Auschwitz, was our guide. He showed us many traces of pre-war Jewish life and of the German occupation. Starting with the House of the Tramway Unions, we learnt about the rich political, cultural and social life of the local Jewish population. Many organizations were established to support new immigrants.
In 1945, the House of the Tramway Unions was the location for the staging of Tevye the Milkman by Alejchem in Yiddish (see photo). Today there is no Jewish life visible in this area of Brussels. However there are many ‘stumbling blocks’ to remind us of those who were deported and murdered. We stopped at several and learnt about deported families as
well as about a few survivors, notably children who were hidden in the Rue des Tanneurs.
We visited the locations of the Belgian Rexists and the “Landelijke Anti-Joodse Centrale voor Vlaanderen en Wallonië” (the anti-Jewish centre for Flanders and Wallonia). Both collaborated with the Germans and actively aided the arrest and deportation of first non-Belgian and later all Jews.
© Fonds UPJB / Collection du Ceges
History made Real
Standing in front of the Hotel Windsor on Place Rouppe, thinking about the Jews imprisoned in the cellars of this building waiting “to be sold” to the Gestapo, makes history very concrete. Hearing about the tragic activities the “Association des Juifs en Belgique” (Jewish Council) carried out during the German occupation is also an intense feeling when you are actually standing in front of the building on boulevard du Midi where the association was located.
As in most occupied countries, this administrative agency had been imposed by Nazi Germany on the local community. Jewish inhabitants in Brussels had to collect their yellow stars here and it was from this address that 'work orders' were issued in the summer of 1942, requiring individuals to report to the Dossin barracks in Mechelen.
The Dieweg Cemetery
After a quick lunch, we were ready for the second part of our tour - about Jewish life in a very different area of Brussels. Philip Schulman was our guide for the Dieweg cemetery. This cemetery was opened in 1866 and is a rare example of a multi-denominational cemetery. As the then mayor of Uccle was a Freemason, Jews could purchase grave sites. The lower part of the cemetery is occupied by Jewish graves, mostly from between 1877 and 1958.
Walking down the narrow paths, one could sense the increasing social integration and rise of Belgian Jews. Many participated in the development of this country, whether in the economic, industrial, political or artistic sectors of the 19th and 20th centuries.
Every Kind of Jewish Grave
There are the graves of several important bankers such as Baron Philippe Lambert who is grandson Baron James Mayer de Rothschild, as well as many artists. The graves are of very different and sometimes luxurious styles depending on the fashion of the time. Several even have photographs as often seen on catholic graves. One can find Jewish graves with Hebrew and French inscriptions and some even carry symbols of Freemasons.
There are also the graves of Orthodox Jews who could not be buried in Putte during the WWI because of the closed border. While some catacombs along the wall of the cemetery cannot be visited anymore due to decay, we visited one where many children were laid to rest.
We learnt about the former Chief Rabbi of Belgium, Rabbi of the Élie-Aristide Astruc (1831-1905), also buried in Dieweg, who had to resign at one point for being too liberal who is also buried in this cemetery. (Anu talks about him in her recent blog.)
Today the cemetery is a protected monument and landscape. It can only be used if there is still space in a family-owned grave. Sadly, little is done to protect this beautiful and special place. But some graves are well kept by families who are still present in Belgium.
We all agreed that we learnt a lot and had an interesting day! It was also nice to see IJC members and some new faces! There is definitely more to Jewish life in Brussels than we could cover in one day, so maybe a second tour could be organized - just preferably not in November!