Brussels, Antwerp Jews spar over Holocaust memorial cobblestones

Jewish community split over Stolpersteine commemorative plaques in sign of growing rift between Flemings and Walloons

The Antwerp Central Synagogue in Antwerp, Belgium. (Wikimedia Public Domain)
The Antwerp Central Synagogue in Antwerp, Belgium. (Wikimedia Public Domain)

Jews from Brussels demonstrated in Antwerp against the refusal of the city and its Jewish community to use memorial cobblestones to commemorate Holocaust victims.

In a move that highlighted the spreading of Belgium’s binational divide to its Jewish communities, a dozen protesters from the Brussels-based Association for the Memory of the Shoah, or AMS, picketed on Monday outside Antwerp’s city hall while the leaders of Antwerp’s Jewish community were attending a commemoration service with Mayor Bart de Wever at a monument elsewhere in Antwerp.

The protest was over the city’s refusal, with backing from the local Jewish community, to allow the placing of Stolpersteine — the German-language name of small brass stones set into the sidewalks in front of buildings from which Jews were deported. More than 50,000 of them have been laid in 18 countries in Europe.

Brussels received its first Stolpersteine last year, following lobbying by AMS. But Antwerp Jews, who increasingly have been seeking independent representation from Brussels, resist the Stolpersteine, citing concerns that Stolpersteine could lead to potentially undignified situations such as vandalism in heavily-Muslim areas or animals relieving themselves on the memorial cobblestones. The Antwerp-based Forum of Jewish Organizations resists the initiative also because it fears it would unfair to Holocaust victims with no relatives to arrange a stone.

Instead, they favor erecting a monument with the names of all of Belgium’s Holocaust victims.

A rose and a candle placed next to a 'Stolperstein,' or stumbling stone, during a walk on the occasion of the 75th anniversary of the Nazi pogrom Kristallnacht in Berlin, November 9, 2013. (AFP/Johannes Eisele)
A rose and a candle placed next to a ‘Stolperstein,’ or stumbling stone, during a walk on the occasion of the 75th anniversary of the Nazi pogrom Kristallnacht in Berlin, November 9, 2013. (AFP/Johannes Eisele)

Belgium, which is home to 40,000 Jews, is a binational federal entity made up of the Flemish Region, where a dialect of Dutch is spoken, and the French-speaking Walloon Region, as well as the federal entity of Brussels, where both languages are spoken. In recent years, Flemish secessionism has become a mainstream policy in the Flemish Region, a development which split Belgium’s political establishment along national divisions.

This development triggered a split within the Jewish community of Brussels and that of Antwerp, which are of equal size but are further separated by the fact that Antwerp is a predominantly-Haredi community while Brussels Jews are mostly secular.

In the 1990s, Antwerp Jews pulled out of the Brussels-based CCOJB umbrella group of Jewish communities and set up their own group, called the Forum. In recent years, the two groups have sparred over issues connected to Israel but have since restored understandings put in place to prevent clashes.

Riverside view of Antwerp, Belgium (photo credit: CC BY-SA 3.0, by Bbd, Wikimedia Commons)
Riverside view of Antwerp, Belgium (CC BY-SA 3.0, by Bbd, Wikimedia Commons)

The binational aspect is present also in the debate about memorial stones, according to Michael Freilich, editor-in-chief of Antwerp’s Joods Actueel monthly. He said Wednesday that, while the Forum has put forth valid arguments for not placing cobblestones, its resistance “may in part also be a knee-jerk reaction to an idea coming from Brussels.”

He also noted that AMS were playing up ethnic divisions by suggesting that the Flemish population was more complicit in the Holocaust than the Walloon one.

In a statement published on its website Tuesday, AMS wrote that Jews who moved from Antwerp to Brussels before the war “doubled their chance of surviving,” adding that the death rate of Jews in Antwerp “is almost as the one achieved by the Dutch government, with broad support by the Dutch population.”

About 75 percent of Dutch Jews were killed in the Holocaust, compared to 60 percent in Belgium.

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