Belgium officially recognized Judaism as a religion after the country became independent in 1830, with the Consistoire Israélite de Belgique as the official interlocutor of the public authorities. At the start of the Nazi occupation in May 1940, there were between 65,000 and 70,000 Jews in Belgium, including many who had recently arrived from Eastern Europe. Within months of the occupation, the Nazis began deporting political refugees and German Jews to internment camps in southern France. Mass deportations of Jews began in 1942, continuing through 1944. Both the Breendonk and Mechelen camps served as collection centers for deportation. About 25,000 Jews were deported from Belgium to the Auschwitz-Birkenau concentration and death camp. In all, approximately 28,000 Jews from Belgium died during the Holocaust, and fewer than 1,500 of Jews who were deported survived. Approximately 50 percent of Belgian Jews were hidden and saved by their countrymen.
There are currently about 40,000 Jews in Belgium, residing mainly in Antwerp and Brussels. The Consistoire Israélite de Belgique is the official interlocutor, but there are numerous Jewish organizations active in Belgium. About 40 Jewish organizations are members of the Comité de Coordination des Organisations Juives de Belgique (CCOJB), which is affiliated with the European Jewish Congress. The Forum der Joodse Organisaties is the key organization in the Flemish part of the country, including Antwerp.
From 1944 to 1997, the Belgian government inconsistently addressed the restitution of confiscated or stolen Jewish property. In 1997, the government formed a special commission to better address the issue. In 2001, the government formed a second commission and allocated €110.6 million (approximately $124 million) to compensate survivors. By the end of the commission’s mandate in 2007, the government had returned €35.2 million (approximately $39.5 million) in compensation to survivors and their families, representing more than 5,620 claims. The Judaism Foundation keeps the remaining €75.4 million (approximately $84.6 million) principal in trust and donates the interest generated to care for the needs of the Jewish community in Belgium.
The World Jewish Restitution Organization advocates for research on the role of the Belgian railway in transporting Jews and other victims to concentration camps, and the Belgian House of Representatives passed a resolution calling for the federal government to launch a thorough survey on the subject. As the federal government was in caretaker status as of late 2019, it will be up to the next government to act on this issue.
Immovable Private, Communal/Religious, and Heirless Property
In the immediate aftermath of the war, an indeterminate number of Holocaust survivors received a measure of compensation for lost rental income, or they received flat rate compensation at a small percentage of the estimated value. Despite forming the second commission in 2001, public authorities were unable to trace documents relating to many confiscated properties. The 2001 commission awarded lump sum payments for claims on properties that had adequate documentation of having been plundered. In total, the government disbursed €1.2 million (approximately $1.3 million) in compensation for 170 immovable property claims.
Movable Property: Nazi-Confiscated and Looted Art
Belgium endorsed the 1998 Washington Principles on Nazi-Looted Art. The Belgian government has identified 331 items of unclear origin, including those on display in local museums. Of these, seven are known to be of Jewish origin and 298 are suspected to be of Jewish origin. Many items require further investigation and research to determine provenance. Through the Federal Science Policy, the government created a steering group, with representatives of the different federal and regional governments.
On January 25, 2014, local media reported that Belgian museums had taken ownership of 639 paintings since the end of World War II and that fewer than 10 percent were returned to the original owner. Media further reported that a federal register of 4,500 items had not been made public. In July 2014, the federal government began sharing responsibility for restitution with the regional and linguistic community governments, in response to increased calls for greater transparency and government coordination. A database of looted art will be made public through a link to the website of the Federal Public Service Economy of Belgium.
Judaica and Jewish Cultural Property
The Ministry of Economic Affairs’ Office of Economic Recovery (ORE) was responsible for tracing, recovering, restituting, and liquidating movable goods from 1944 until its dissolution in 1968. In 1948, the Central Jewish Consistoire purchased 565 Hebrew books of unknown but possible Jewish origin from the ORE. The 2001 Commission was involved in researching the origin of all immovable property in Belgium.
Access to Archival Documents
ORE’s division of the National Archives stored post-World War II files relevant to recovering and registering looted art. These files were transferred to the State Archives upon the dissolution of ORE in 1968, were digitalized in 2012, and are now available online. The Office of War Damage keeps a record of all claims related to war damages, including plundering. Records are searchable by both the property’s physical address and the physical address of the property’s owner. The 1997 and 2001 Commissions’ findings regarding the archival documents are publicly available. Copies of many records are available at the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, which has had good cooperation with Belgian archives.
Education, Remembrance, Research, and Memorial Sites
The Flemish, French, and German linguistic communities are responsible for education policy, including the development of educational programs on remembrance, tolerance, and citizenship. Education on the Holocaust is a mandatory part of school curricula. In 2014 and 2015, thousands of Belgian youths rode a train from Brussels to Auschwitz-Birkenau to attend the international commemoration of the liberation of Europe. A similar initiative is planned for 2020.
Belgium joined the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance in 2005 and observes International Holocaust Remembrance Day on January 27. Belgium’s Center for Historical Research and Documentation on War and Contemporary Society participates in the European Holocaust Research Infrastructure. The Foundation of Contemporary Memory collects 20th century testimonials from the Jewish community in Belgium.
A monument at the Dossin Barracks in Mechelen solemnly marks the assembly point in Belgium where Jews and Roma were deported to concentration camps during World War II. The monument is one of 40 monuments in Belgium dedicated to the remembrance of victims of the Holocaust. The Jewish Museum of Belgium, which was the site of a terrorist attack on May 24, 2014, has a room dedicated to the victims and survivors of the Shoah.