This week Mechelen hosts a three-day plenary session of the Task Force for International Cooperation on Holocaust Education, Remembrance and Research (ITF), under the chairmanship of Belgium. The annual conference brings together diplomats, politicians and historical experts to discuss Holocaust remembrance and education.
The chairman is Jan Deboutte, a Belgian diplomat who has followed the development of the ITF closely. He was ambassador to Sweden in 2000 when the Stockholm Declaration, which outlines the principles of the ITF, was signed. “Later I returned to Brussels and took part in the discussions that led to Belgium becoming a member in 2005,” he explains. “When I was ambassador in India, I followed the matter from afar. When they asked me to take the chair, I couldn’t refuse.”
Belgium has taken over from the Netherlands, and the chance to preside over the ITF was the idea of the Flemish government, Deboutte says. In April of 2010, ministerpresident Kris Peeters explained to the Flemish parliament: “I took the initiative in the autumn of 2008, in agreement with the Dossin barracks. In June 2009 Belgium’s candidacy for the chairmanship was accepted at the plenary meeting in Oslo.”
The Belgian chair of the ITF coincides with the opening this September of the new museum and memorial for Holocaust remembrance on the site of the old Dossin barracks in Mechelen. “The Dossin barracks is the symbol par excellence of the racist persecution in this country during the Second World War,” says Peeters. “Mechelen as a venue was an obvious choice.”
Deboutte sees the work of the conference and indeed of the yearlong Belgian presidency, which lasts until March 2013, as a continuation of work done by his predecessor. “Within the ITF, there are four working groups: remembrance, education, academics and communication. We are in the process of setting up multi-year work plans. In Mechelen, we hope to be able to create a general policy outline for the four main priorities: research on education about the Holocaust, the killing sites, access to archives and memorial and remembrance days. We will hopefully also reach agreement on funding of recognised specialists to carry out research. The ITF has a very small secretariat in Berlin of only three people, and financing amounts to €30,000 per member state per year. We’re talking about very reasonable sums.”
In the case of Belgium, the money is split between the foreign affairs ministry and the three language communities, who are responsible for education.
Other issues include the preservation of Holocaust sites (like Dossin), opening up archives to researchers and ensuring the continuity of Holocaust education, even as the events retreat further into the past; last month, a train carried 1,000 young Belgians from Brussels to Auschwitz, with some of the camp’s last survivors. The trip was organised by the Belgian National Institute for Veterans and Victims of War, and a full report on their experience can be found at www. traindes1000.be.
“Unfortunately, 12 years after we solemnly adopted the Stockholm Declaration, we cannot but note an increase in manifestations, statements a nd acts of racism, anti-Semitism and xenophobia,” Deboutte says. “To promote education, remembrance and research about the Holocaust in a deteriorating environment will require increased effort and cooperation from everyone, especially since the number of direct witnesses – survivors – is rapidly dwindling. The Belgian chairmanship stands ready to cooperate with all ITF members, observers and representatives of civil society to achieve our common goals.”
The Dossin barracks in Mechelen were built in 1756 and was renamed in 1936 for an army general, Baron Dossin de Saint-Georges. Between the fall of Belgium and the order to start deporting Jews in 1942, most prisoners were sent to Fort Breendonk near Antwerp, accused of breaching strict anti-Jewish laws. When the deportations began, Dossin became the main transit point for Jews rounded up in Belgium to be sent to the camps.
The operation at Dossin was carried out with startling efficiency: In a 100-day period in the summer of 1942, no fewer than 16,873 people were rounded up for deportation. Only 385 survived. In all, 28 transports were organised out of Dossin.
The building was taken over by the army after liberation and returned to its prior use as a school for army administrators until 1973, when it fell into disuse. In 1989 it was used to store the city’s archives, and at the request of two Jewish organisations, a small museum covering the barracks’ history as a transit camp was installed. In 1995 it was opened officially as the Jewish Museum of Deportation and Resistance.
A new museum, an initiative of the Flemish government, was conceived in 2010. Due to open in September, it is called Kazerne Dossin Memorial, Museum and Documentation Centre on the Holocaust and Human Rights. The message of the new institution is twofold, says Second World War historian Maarten Demey: “There is the Belgian case and the complicity of Belgium in the persecution of the Jews. And then there is the place of the individual and the significance of the masses … attention is paid to the collective derailment of society and the place of an individual in this crowd. A mass helped by a specific context, like a government, can cause a shift of moral and political power.”
As the museum puts it: “We defeat the criminals by remembering their victims. This way; the visitor works against the final goal of the guilty: the complete destruction of the victims.”