Belgium Remembers: Wealth of exhibitions shed light on stories of liberation


From the international effort that finally ended the Second World War to the dawning of the extent of the concentration camps, exhibitions across Flanders and Brussels commemorate the 75th anniversary of the liberation of Belgium

Complex histories

On Monday, Belgium will mark exactly 75 years since the start of the country’s liberation during the Second World War. The year-long Belgium Remembers campaign commemorates the anniversary with a wealth of exhibitions that put the spotlight on the main events and key actors of the time.

Visitors can learn about, say, the importance of the Battle of the Scheldt, the role of a Polish armoured division or the complex history of the Auschwitz concentration camp.

On 8 May, the War Heritage Institute opened the permanent exhibition War – Occupation – Liberation at the Royal Museum of the Armed Forces. It’s the perfect place to start an exploration on understanding Belgium’s place in the Second World War.

But there is much, much more to discover. In Zeebrugge, Operation North Sea 1944-45 at the Seafront theme park – based in a former fish market – tells the story of the little-known but decisive Battle of the Scheldt.

‘Logistical nightmare’

From 2 October 1944, a month after Brussels was liberated, the Allied forces fought crucial battles over five weeks in the north of Flanders and south of the Netherlands. The Battle of the Scheldt involved Canadian, British and Polish formations, as well as Belgian, French and Norwegian soldiers.

Their goal, which they achieved on 8 November, was to open up the shipping route to Antwerp so that the port could be used to supply the troops located further inland. Until then, the Allies had to supply goods from the French coast.

“To transport one litre of fuel from there to the Belgian front at that time cost them five litres of fuel, which was of course a logistical nightmare,” says curator Dominique Henrard of the War Heritage Institute’s marine collection department. After they won the battle, minesweepers still had to clear the way for the Allied ships, which finally docked in the port of Antwerp on 28 November.

The sea also became the burial ground for many soldiers, something we should never forget

The exhibition showcases many original objects from the battle, of which the gigantic 15-ton anti-aircraft gun of British war ship HMS Roberts is probably the most impressive. Other highlights are an original Canadian armoured truck, torpedoes and parts of shot-down airplanes.

After the fighting was over, dozens of sunken ships remained at the bottom of the North Sea. The exhibition shows pieces of these – like navigation devices – that were found at the coast and in the Scheldt. “But we also included personal objects, like helmets and shoes, to emphasise the human aspect,” explains Henrard. “The sea also became the burial ground for many soldiers, something we should never forget.”

Also full of surprising facts is the travelling exhibition Armoured Wings, currently on view in Tielt. It tells the tale of the Polish armoured division led by General Stanislaw Maczek.

After landing in France, these troops entered Poperinge in the Westhoek on 6 September, fought their way through Flanders and participated in the fights along the Scheldt estuary. After helping to liberate Flanders, the Polish soldiers contributed to the battles in Germany until the end of the war in May 1945.

Some 1,000 Polish soldiers had by then lost their lives in combat. The collection is made up of countless items from both Belgian and Polish private collections and from the Royal Military Museum collections.

The Kazerne Dossin Memorial, Museum and Research Centre on Holocaust and Human Rights in Mechelen takes part in Belgium Remembers with a new exhibition on the war’s most notorious concentration camp. Auschwitz.Camp opens at the end of October.

A Nazi empire

The museum site, the Dossin Barracks, was used by the Nazis as a transition and detention camp for Jewish and Roma people. “And most of the people deported from here were brought to Auschwitz,” says Veerle Vanden Daelen, Kazerne Dossin’s deputy director and curator of the exhibition. “The new exhibition will illustrate the role of Auschwitz as a concentration and annihilation camp, but also show the other plans that the Nazis had for the site.”

The exhibition will disclose a more unknown dimension of Auschwitz, which also included railroads, residential areas and factories – including a gigantic biochemical plant that depended on forced labour. Auschwitz thus demonstrates how the construction of a Nazi empire was well underway.

The few survivors who began to share their experiences made it increasingly clear how many people would never return

- Veerle Vanden Daelen of Kazerne Dossin

Auschwitz.Camp will also cover forms of resistance, how the site was treated after its liberation at the end of January 1945 and stories of the people brought over from Belgium. “While Belgian media started reporting on the mass killings in the camps quickly after the liberation, the realisation of the magnitude of the tragedy only really started to sink in in the summer of 1945,” says Vanden Daelen. “The few survivors were then back and could share their experiences, which made it increasingly clear how many people would never return.”

Finally, two exhibitions in Antwerp and Brussels showcase the emotional rollercoaster that followed the liberation of these two respective cities: Vreugde & verdriet (Joy & Sorrow) in the FelixArchief and Bevrijd Brussels (Liberated Brussels) in the Sint-Gorikshallen.

The exhibition in Brussels will open on 4 September with a Liberation Ball that evokes the atmosphere of the 1940s, complete with swing music and dancers.

This is the third of three articles on Belgium Remembers. Find the first here and the second here

Photos: Auschwitz/©Belga/AFP, Operation North Sea ©Benny Proot