The Belgian authorities have destroyed archives and records relating to the persecution and deportation of Jews in Belgium in the 1930s and 1940s. Some of this happened as recently as the late 1990s. This was revealed during hearings in the Belgian Senate last Spring. Though the Senate report dates from 4 May the Belgian press has not yet mentioned the affair. [update 3 Sept.: The Brussels Dutch-language newspaper De Morgen published an article on page 6 of its 14 Dec. 2005 edition, under the title: Archives about Persecution of Jews were Intentionally Destroyed] The Senate report says that “documents about the period 1930-1950 have been destroyed on a massive scale.”
The systematic destructions of the records of police and judiciary from the 1930s and ’40s happened chiefly in Brussels and Wallonia, the French-speaking south of Belgium. The Senate report states that in Flanders, the Dutch-speaking north of the country, archives have been saved thanks to conscientious archivists. “This policy – of having competent archivists manage dead archives – contrasts with the disastrous situation at the offices of the public prosecutors in Brussels and Wallonia.”
While the records about the persecution of the Antwerp Jewry have been kept intact, documents about the fate of the Jews in Brussels and in French-speaking cities with large pre-war Jewish communities, such as Charleroi and Liège, were purposely destroyed. In Charleroi all the archives relating to the 1930s and the war years have vanished. In Brussels the judicial archives are present “until the early 1930s, while there is (almost) nothing left of the period thereafter,” the report says, adding that “Reference is often made to the 1944 fire of the Palais de Justice to explain this lack of archives [...] However, there is no doubt that large parts of the Brussels judicial wartime archives were destroyed after 1944.”
The report says that some archives disappeared very recently, during the reform of the Belgian police forces in the late 1990s and early 2000s, when the Gendarmerie was abolished and the Federal Police was instituted. Crucial parts of the Gendarmerie archives vanished in the process.
In Charleroi the archives of both the municipal police as well as the judicial police were completely destroyed in the late 1970s. Before the war Charleroi had a relatively large Jewish community which was all but exterminated during the war, while in Antwerp a significant proportion of the Jews managed to survive. Yet in Belgium no-one is familiar with the extermination of the Walloon Jewry, while Antwerp is regularly blamed for having been a “center of anti-Semitism.” By destroying paper trails people are made to forget that certain events ever took place.
Hugo Vandenberghe, the leader of the Flemish Christian-Democrats, suggested that the destruction of the archives “may have had a political motive.” Senator Vandenberghe referred to the anti-Semitism of the Belgian authorities in the 1930s. The historian Nico Wouters told the Senators during the hearings that even after the war the Belgian authorities continued to arrest German Jews who had survived the holocaust by going into hiding, under the pretext that they were “citizens of a hostile nation.”
Records relating to the so-called “phantom trains” have also disappeared. The “phantom trains” were convoys of “unpatriotic” Belgians, such as Flemish-Nationalists and Communists, and non-Belgian citizens, most of them Jewish fugitives from Germany and Poland. They were arrested by the Belgian authorities at the beginning of the war and deported to France.
Thousands of Jewish families had fled to Belgium in the late 1930s. They had not been welcome. After the German annexation of Austria in March 1938, Charles du Bus de Warnaffe, the then Belgian Minister of Justice, ordered the Belgian embassy in Vienna to deny visas to Jews. The Minister, a Walloon member of the Catholic Party, opined in the Belgian Parliament (22 Nov. 1938) that the Jews had “for centuries constituted a problem in Europe.” In an article he called them an “extremely unreliable” people; “they have no word of honour and do not keep it.” Charles du Bus de Warnaffe became Minister of Justice again after the war, and gave the death penalty to Flemish-Nationalists who had fought with the Germans on the Eastern Front.
In January 1940 the Belgian King Leopold III, the father of the present King Albert II and an outspoken anti-Semite, told the Belgian government: “The number of Israelites that have entered the country illegally since September 1939 is estimated to be 30,000. Action against them cannot be harsh enough.”
When German troops invaded Belgium on 10 May 1940, the Belgian authorities rounded up thousands of “unpatriotic” Belgians and foreigners, often entire families. Their exact number is unknown, as the records have been been destroyed. In Antwerp alone, however, 3,000 suspects were arrested. The majority of them were Jews; about 400 were (non-Jewish) German citizens and 20 were Flemish-Nationalists. Citizens from allied and neutral countries were arrested as well.
The prisoners were stowed in railway wagons and deported to France. One victim later recalled: “It took our train seven days to get from Brussels to Orléans. Under a torrid heat, locked up with 40 people, including women and children, in a hermetically sealed wagon where we had to stay day and night, we suffered from hunger, a lack of air and especially from thirst. We were left for 43 hours without receiving even a drop of water. [...] Many people died en route.” The exact number of the victims is unknown.
Most records relating to the “phantom trains” have disappeared, but one case, involving 79 prisoners, is well-known because it included a prominent Flemish politician, Joris van Severen, the leader of a fervently pro-Belgian Fascist party. The group was made up of 21 Belgians (including an agent of the British Intelligence Service) and 58 non-Belgians: 19 Jews, 15 non-Jewish Germans, 9 Italians (including at least 4 Communist opponents of Mussolini), 6 Dutchmen (including an 18-year-old girl with her mother and grandmother), 3 Luxemburgians, 2 citizens of neutral Switzerland, a Spaniard, a Dane, a Frenchman and an English-speaking Canadian. French soldiers gone berserk massacred 21 of them at the French town of Abbeville. The victims included the Canadian, the Dutch grandmother, a German Catholic monk, a Hungarian Jew, a Czech Jew, a Communist Brussels town councillor and Joris van Severen and his deputy.
Thousands of civilians deported by the Belgians on the “phantom trains” were released by the Wehrmacht, the German army, after the surrender of France. Their number included many Jews. They were the only Jews ever liberated by Hitler’s army. The Wehrmacht allowed them to return to Belgium. However, 3,537 Jews holding German and Austrian passports were kept imprisoned. This group later ended up in Auschwitz, where they were murdered. They were the only Auschwitz victims who had been arrested at the order of a Western goverment. Leo Frenssen, an Antwerp Flemish-Nationalist and pacifist member of the Belgian Parliament, who had also been imprisoned in the South of France, tried in vain to get his Jewish co-prisoners released.
In July 1940 General Eggert Reeder, the head of the Wehrmacht in Brussels, had Robert De Foy, the boss of the Belgian secret police, arrested for the deportations. The SS, however, immediately ordered that De Foy be released. Reeder received this order personally by telephone from Reinhard Heydrich, the head of the German State Security, the Reichssicherheidshauptamt (RSHA), in Berlin. In a 1943 letter to Heinrich Himmler Reeder explained that it emerged that “De Foy had in the months preceding the invasion closely collaborated with the RSHA and with Heydrich himself, to whom he had provided important material.”
After the war Robert De Foy resumed his position as head of the Belgian secret police. No wonder no-one ever investigated how and on whose orders the Belgian secret service had assisted Heydrich before the war. Nor did Belgium ever pay damages to the “phantom train” victims. On the contrary, it even refused to repatriate the bodies of the 21 victims in Abbeville.