The bells of Mechelen
(Transcript from World News Australia Radio)
Almost 70 years have passed since the end of one of the many dark chapters in the story of the Holocaust – Nazi Germany’s deportation of Jews from Belgium.
Between 1942 and 1944, German occupation forces deported more than 25,000 Jews from Belgium to the Auschwitz-Birkenau Nazi concentration and extermination camp in German-occupied Poland.
Despite the decades that have passed, a project continues in Belgium to digitize files relating to those who passed through the Kazerne Dossin transit camp.
Almost 800,000 documents have so far been digitised, for the benefit of historians and families.
SBS Radio’s Russian program executive producer, Sima Tsyskin, has been on a personal journey to Kazerne Dossin to delve into those files.
This is her story.
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The bells of the carillon in Belgian town of Mechelen, or Malines as it is called in French.
But what brought me into this town was not the desire to see the world famous Saint Rumold’s Cathedral.
I was tracing the fate of my grandfather, Herman Brisk.
All the information I had was a piece of paper my mother received from Belgium as answer to her enquiry a long time ago.
“Confirming herewith that according to the deportation register of transit camp in Malines the mentioned Herman Brisk, born 1879, was deported by the German occupational authorities on April 19, 1943 on Transport No 20 under number 1039. According to our knowledge the specified person didn’t return from the camp.”
My maternal grandfather, Herman Brisk, was born in 1879 in Pernov, present Parnu, in Estlandian province of the Russian Empire.
He lived in a small town called Poltsamaa; Oberpalen, in German.
In 1918, one year after the Russian Revolution, Estonia became independent and Herman Brisk moved to Tallinn with his family.
He was running a small haberdashery and hardware business.
I don’t know what made him to leave Estonia in 1929 and go to Antwerp in Belgium.
He did not make any big fortune, lived in a small rented apartment, and generally was engaged in the same business – small wholesale trade.
In Mechelen, I met with Dorien Styven, assistant archivist and researcher at the former army barracks of Kazerne Dossin, now a Memorial, Museum and Documentation Centre on Holocaust and Human Rights.
“The German Army invaded Belgium on May 10 1940 and a lot of Belgian citizens, among them thousands of Jewish residents, fled Belgium to France to escape the German armies. On May 28 the Belgian King Leopold surrendered to the German Army. He was locked up in his palace in Brussels and German Army took over. We had German Commander of Chief, he was a military man in charge of Belgium and most of France from May 28 1940 onwards. His name was Alexander von Falkenhausen and he was responsible for all the anti-Jewish measures that were conducted in Belgium between October 28 1940, so a few months after the invasion until the summer of 1942 when the Jewish deportations from Mechelen started.”
She could confirm that Herman Brisk was brought to Kazerne Dossin after his arrest in Antwerp in 1943.
Between 1942 and 1944 the Nazis used Kazerne Dossin as an assembly camp, transporting 25,484 Jews and 352 gypsies, more commonly known today as Roma, from there to the death camp Auschwitz-Birkenau.
Dorien brings up on the computer screen an image of a torn brown envelope with a handwritten name of my grandfather.
This envelope used to contain 44 personal documents in Dutch, French and German he brought to Kazerne Dossin.
A list of his business contacts, bank statements, insurance policy, various receipts, letters from German occupation authorities and his records in the Jewish Registries.
But Herman Brisk never came back and the old papers stayed untouched for many years until they were digitised by the museum.
It is close to a miracle since all personal records from the opening of camp in July 1942 until the end of 1942 were burned so that people could not be traced, says Dorien Styven.
“From the deportees from transport 1 until 19 we have no personal documents, or very little. In the beginning of 1943 there is a change in camp commander. Phillip Schmitz was commander at that time, he had illegal business in the camp so he was expelled from Kazerne Dossin and was replaced by Johannes Frank. The new commander would no longer burn the documents of people who came in. So these envelopes were kept in the administration and survived the war there. After the war some family members had a chance to get them back, some decided not to do so because we can guarantee that they are safe kept here forever”.
From the brown envelope:
“In reference to the enquiry to the Security Police on Saturday 12 this month about the financial support from Baltic and Russian citizens help committee, it is advised that Herman Brisk is not entitled to the support since he is Jewish. Stamped Association of Belgian Jews Committee Director. Signed. December 1942.”
Belgium was in some sense unusual since 90 per cent of the Jewish people living here were, like my grandfather, of foreign origin.
The archivist at Kazerne Dossin, Dorien Styven, explains that the German military governor for Belgium, Alexander von Falkenhausen, appointed in May 1940, published 17 decrees against the Jewish population of Belgium as preparatory measures to the mass deportations.
“It all started as an anti-Jewish measure of Oct.28 1940 in which was stated that all the Jewish adults, and adults were men and women older than 14, so 15 and onwards, they had to come to the town halls of their place of residence to register themselves into a Jewish register. There were Belgian clerks who would fill up the forms for every member of the Jewish household who was 15 years or older. Babies who were between the age of baby and 14 were added to their father’s forms. When Jewish boys and girls turned 15 they got a letter from town Hall of their place of residence to come to the town hall within 3 days after their birthday and register themselves to have their own form. So we see that there is a very logical form of pursuing this registration. After October 28 there was stipulated that Jews could no longer own radios, so they were cut off from all information”.
Next, says Dorien Styven, Jewish bars, restaurants and shops in Belgium had to put up signs in their windows, saying they were Jewish businesses, and non-Jews were actively discouraged from visiting them.
Jews were also excluded from some professions, such as journalism, and they could no longer be lawyers or professors at the universities.
It was also declared that Jewish doctors could only see Jewish patients.
“In the spring of 1942 we see that the Jewish Council created by the Belgian Jewish Association, does a second round of registration. So they create a membership list of Jewish Council and all Jewish families had to become members. We see that almost one third of all the Jewish families decided not to become members. But we know however that the membership lists of the Jewish Council were later used, as we suspect, for the raids organised in large Belgian cities Antwerp and Brussels”.
On 2 March 1942 the German commander in chief ordered expropriation of all Jewish companies.
From the brown envelope:
“Register. Association of Jews of Belgium. Local committee. Reference number 12616. Third of the third, 42. Name: Herman Brisk. Birthdate 26-3-1879. Birthplace: Poltsamaa, Profession: Merchant. Religion: Jewish. Nationality: Êstlander.”
Most of them were small and not very profitable businesses, but important for family survival.
More than 6,000 of 7,400 registered businesses were either shut down or handed over to Germans, in a process called Aryanisation.
From the brown envelope:
“On the grounds of paragraph 18 of the instructions of Military commander of Belgium and North France of economic measures against Jews of 31.5.1941 you are obligated to cease any commercial activity which from this date onwards is forbidden to you at any form. You are held responsible for liquidating your own company. Stamped Military commander of Belgium and North France. Chief of management. 23 March 1942.”
And then came the last anti-Jewish decree which had a huge impact.
It was proclaimed that all Jews older than five years had to wear a yellow Star of David.
So from June 1942 onwards the Jewish population was not only recognisable by a stamp in their identity cards but also by the yellow star on their clothes.
Everything was ready to make Belgium “Judenfrei” – free of Jews.
In July 1942 Kazerne Dossin opened its gate.
Dorien Styven describes it.
“Kazerne Dossin is an old army building. It’s a square with a large courtyard and one big gate leading to this courtyard. Before the war it was used by Belgian Army as a school. In 1942 the Nazis in Belgium were looking for a building they could use as a ‘Sammellager’ , camp which collects the Jewish people and then deports to Auschwitz – Birkenau. They choose Kazerne Dossin because the way it was built, more as a prison than military camp. It was also close to Brussels and Antwerp, two large cities in Belgium which had huge Jewish communities of more than 20,000 people. And there was a railroad track leading to the building and from there to the towns of Mechelen and Lеven, to Germany and then to Auschwitz in Poland.”
The Germans started abducting Jewish girls who spoke several languages, to work as secretaries in Kazerne Dossin.
They were just plucked from the streets on the way to work and brought to the transit camp, says Dorien Styven.
At the beginning of August 1942, the administration unit for the camp was set up and the first Jewish men and women started to arrive.
The Germans issued 12,000 orders to the Jewish population, each one under a personal name, to come to the camp because they’d been selected for forced labour in the East.
The letter stated that if they did not come voluntarily, there would be severe consequences for them, their families and the whole Jewish community.
Of the 12,000 who received the letter, 4,000 people came voluntarily and the first convoys left Kazerne Dossin in August and September 1942.
But after that, Jewish people did not trust the German letters any more and stopped coming.
Following the directions of the occupation authorities, the Jewish Council added notes to the letters, begging people to go to Kazerne Dossin, but even these were ignored, says Dorien Styven.
“What happened then is that Germans have a quota, they have to deport 10,000 Jews by the end of 1942. The Germans decide to organise big raids because they have to reach their quota. So they contact the Antwerp police to help them, successfully because in Antwerp there will be four big raids. The Antwerp police would cut off streets where lots of Jewish families are living and enter every house to drag out the people. They often use violence, people are beaten, assaulted and yelled at, called names at, spat at.”
From early 1943, Jewish bank accounts in Belgium were gradually centralised for future confiscation, with the demand of their transfer to a financial institution controlled by the German occupational authorities.
From the brown envelope.
“Bank DAnvers, 10 February 1943. Monsieur Herman Brisk, 25 Rue de la pelle. Monsieur, We have the honour to bring to your knowledge that as per decision of 24 October 1942 of Military commander of Belgium and North France all banks deposits and accounts of Jews are to be transferred to Belgian Banks. Signed Bank DAnvers. S.A”.
In total, 28 convoys left Kazerne Dossin to Auschwitz-Birkenau.
The moment the arrested Jewish men and women entered the Kazerne Dossin camp, their names were added to the deportation list.
Dorien Styven shows me that Herman Brisk was registered on March 5, 1943.
There is no further information concerning his arrest.
Upon entering Kazerne Dossin, he received his number 1039 on the list of convoy 20.
“Deportation list.Transport Twenty. 1027. Hammer Zigmund. Fourth of the fourth 1897. Accountant. 1028. Glueksman, Sharlotte. Third of the elevens 1903. Berlin. Hauswife. 1029 Kogan, Samuel. 19/9/1903. Engineer. 1039. Brisk Herman. 26/3/1879. Poltsamaa, Estland. Merchant.1041. Kinder Yulius. 30/12/93. Dlugi. Warehouse manager”.
Transport 20 left Kazerne Dossin in Mechelen on April 19, 1943 and arrived in Auschwitz on April 22, 1943.
Dorien Styven says it took three days instead of two because the train was attacked by the resistance fighters.
“Transport XX was special because it was the only deportation train in Europe attacked from outside. There are three young men Yura Livschitz, he was a Jewish doctor-to-be, and two of his school comrades Robert Maistriau and Jean Franklemon decided to do something for the Jews who were deported. They had some help from the organised Resistance, the armed partisans, but most of the action they did themselves. From the Resistance they received 50 thousand Belgian francs in small notes, it was a huge amount in these days, to distribute amongst the Jews they will be able to liberate from the train. And just one gun with a few bullets. They even did not have a gun for all of them”.
According to the records, three attackers placed a red lantern onto the train tracks between the stations of Mechelen and Leven and train stopped.
But the fighters did not know that Transport 20 comprised cattle wagons sealed off with barbed wire and the German escort was in the first, not the last carriage.
As soon as attackers fired the first shot, the guards started to shoot back.
“We think that Jean Franklemon could not open one of the wagons since he was under heavy fire from the Germans. We know that Robert Maistriau has reached the middle of the train and used some kind of scissors to cut open the barbed wire and opened the door of one wagon. We think that it was wagon 16 or 17 when train consisted of over 20 dividings. There were 1600 people in Transport 20 so we have between 20 and 30 wagons. And counting the number of people arrived to Auschwitz we know that 15 to 17 people were able to escape. 10 of them were able to go into hiding and survived the war. The other 5 to 7 people were caught and deported again. None of them survived. When the train got on its way again we see that in the other wagons people try to break out. There are Resistance fighters in the wagons, Jewish fighters who were at Kazerne Dossin. They smuggled in tools, hammers and saws and they were able to escape several dozens of people from these wagons and in total we know 232 people jumped from Transport 20.”
Dorien Styven confirms that sadly, Herman Brisk wasn’t among the people who jumped the train.
It is still unclear what happened to my grandfather upon arrival in Auschwitz-Birkenau.
There is no death certificate or a document with a tattoo number on his name.
It can only be confirmed that he died after deportation, but officially it is not possible to add any information on the date, place or circumstances of his death.
But since my grandfather was almost 65 years old when he arrived to the camp, it is likely that he was killed immediately.
Only old papers left behind at Kazerne Dossin can confirm that he once was here.
Outside of the massive walls of the former army barracks, a Jewish Museum of Deportation and Resistance was founded in 1995 by a number of Holocaust survivors.
With support from the Flemish government, it’s been expanded into a second building now called Kazerne Dossin – Memorial, Museum and Documentation Centre on Holocaust and Human Rights.
The former transportation camp itself was some time ago turned into a housing complex.
People actually live in this building today.
Standing in its courtyard, I could hear the bells of Cathedral of Saint Rumold.
The deep arching gateway to the courtyard is still in place.
My grandfather Herman Brisk walked through here before leaving in a cattle wagon to Auschwitz Birkenau on Transport Number 20 on April 19, 1943.
My grandfather was as old as I am now.
For me, the bells are ringing in his memory, the beautiful bells of Mechelen.