Tuesday, 17 March 2015

A visit to Kazerne Dossin, Mechelen, Belgium

Mechelen was chosen as a transport hub for the deportation of Jews and others deemed undesirable by the Nazis from 1942 to 1944 because it was conveniently located between Brussels and Antwerp and had good railway links.  Kazerne Dossin is a fitting monument to the lives and deaths of the Jews, gypsies, and others who suffered under the Nazi regime before and during the war, in Belgium and elsewhere.  Opened in 2012, it is described in its literature as a ‘Memorial Museum and Documentation Centre about the Holocaust and Human Rights’.

Occupying five floors in a massive purpose-built structure, it covers and contextualises the rise of Nazism in Germany after 1918; Jewish life in Belgium during the same period; the occupation; registration of Jewish citizens and increasing restrictions on their freedom as they were excluded from mainstream society; the often enthusiastic cooperation given by the Belgian authorities, at least in the early stages; the strains of living in hiding for those Jews who chose not to submit;  the theft of property, and the transports East leaving from the Dossin Barracks opposite (after which the museum is named) to Auschwitz-Birkenau and other camps; the mass murder; and the trauma of those who survived.  Photographs, objects and information panels are interspersed with audio commentaries describing some of the stories of those caught up in this dreadful period that make compelling listening, and films of Holocaust survivors recounting their own experiences.  All information is trilingual, including English.

A video near reception orients the visitor with a brief history of anti-semitism and the way in which those who are seen to be different can be ostracised and bullied.  The main exhibition is divided into three parts, a floor devoted to each: ‘Mass’, creating the environment in which maaltreatment can flourish by taking away a sense of individual responsibility and forming an outgroup to despise; ‘Fear’, the imposition of a state of terror after the German invasion of Belgium in 1940, leading to the deportations; and ‘Death’, the camps and the extermination.  Included here are photographs of SS personnel enjoying themselves, seemingly oblivious of the horrors around them which were all in a day’s work.  As well as the conveyor belt to the gas chambers, the mass executions carried out on the Eastern Front are included, naked individuals lined up and shot at the edges of huge pits.   Importantly in all this it is stressed that the Holocaust did not come out of a vacuum, but built on anti-Semitic attitudes which pre-dated the Third Reich.

Cumulatively the displays show the infliction of terror on an unimaginable scale.  To reinforce that message, one huge wall of the museum is covered with photographs of the deportees, a remarkable and sombre display which is designed to give them back the identities of which they were so cruelly deprived.  The predominant colour of the museum is white, symbolic of purity and innocence, while reminiscent of gravestone marble.  It is a huge building, imposing and functional, with no unnecessary frills to distract from the content, towering over the old barracks that for some 26,000 people was the start of their journey away from Mechelen.  The whole place is an act of commemoration, while asking hard questions about how such an act could happen.

The Belgian state apparatus which collaborated with the Nazi authorities does not on the whole – with notable exceptions – come out well, though the fact that large numbers of Jews remained in hiding is testament to the support of sections of the wider community, and Belgian co-operation decreased as the German persecution became more naked.  This is in contrast to the tolerance Belgium displayed before the invasion, becoming home to many displaced Jews from other countries, notably Poland.  But the focus is not just on those who actively assisted the Nazis; those who stood by passively were also complicit.  The centre is thus an act of remembrance for all Belgians, not just its Jewish citizens.  The top floor is given over to temporary exhibitions about other genocides, broadening the scope from what happened at Mechelen and elsewhere during the Second World War; the one during my visit comprised large-scale photographs dealing with the documentation of the victims and the crimes that were perpetrated against them during the Guatemalan civil war.

Looking at the photographs of those who died in the concentration camps, what struck me was how ordinary they looked.  One that caught my eye was of a casually-dressed man in glasses sitting on a sofa.  He looked much like I do, casually dressed, in glasses, sitting on the sofa.  I couldn’t really see how he was so different from me in any way that someone would want to murder him for no other reason than that he happened to be Jewish.  These are not anonymous individuals, statistics, they are real people, who had hopes and fears like anybody else.  What really made me think how much alike they and we are though was a particular photograph.  It is of two men standing side by side, with cigarettes in their hands, taken outside a Jewish restaurant in Charleois, Belgium, in 1936.  That they are both holding their cigarettes in their left hands suggests that they are brothers. 

 Whether they are or not, the picture reminded me strongly of one of my favourite photographs of my father (on the left), standing outside the Union Tavern, Camberwell New Road, south London, in 1955 with his brother George, the pair similarly holding cigarettes. 

 Different times and circumstances, but still two ordinary men standing in the street with cigarettes.  Was either of those men photographed in 1936 alive a decade later?  We can be thankful that we in the West today are immeasurably more comfortable than are those who suffer oppression, while we are reminded, both from historical and contemporary examples, how fragile that comfort can be.

When we arrived at Kazerne Dossin a party of school students was just finishing a tour and congregating with their mobile phones. It was good to see young people being exposed to these exhibits, though who knows what lessons they took away, but otherwise it was all fairly quiet.  More people should make the trip to Mechelen and see what can happen to ordinary people, little different to anybody else, who are persecuted by those who pursue a ruthless and unbending ideology of hate.  That anti-Semitism is still a problem was demonstrated by the presence of armed soldiers in the foyer (we also visited the Jewish Museum of Belgium in Brussels, where four people were murdered in May 2014, and that too has armed guards among other stringent security measures).

The barracks across the road, where deportees gathered to wait for the transports, have been converted into flats, the courtyard landscaped.  The building has been put to positive use, but it still felt a little uncomfortable walking through the doorway and visualising where, based on a photograph we saw in the museum, arrivals had clustered, lorries had stood, and where possessions had been left, symbolic of the soon-to-be absence of those rounded up.  The past suddenly felt very present as we stood there.

 Anybody visiting Brussels or Antwerp should seriously consider visiting Kazerne Dossin.  It deals with specific instances of mass murder but draws out broader lessons which are timeless.  These oblige us to think about the mechanisms that enable such barbarous acts and how we might respond in similar circumstances; how resistant to demagoguery we would be when the entire regime is bent on the systematic annihilation of its opponents and those who, for ideological reasons, it deems unworthy of life.

The Nazis’ victims may be gone, but Kazerne Dossin, for as long as it stands, will perpetuate their memory.