The Dossin site is of crucial importance to Belgium’s wartime memories – the locus, as one speaker said, of the greatest crime against humanity ever to have taken place in the country’s history. Between the summer of 1942 and the liberation two years later, 28 Nazi transports carried 25,482 Jews and 352 gypsies in cattle cars from Dossin to Auschwitz.
Among the deportees – of whom 1,276 would live until the end of the war – were 5,430 children, 150 of them under the age of two. The average survival time after arrival at the camp: three hours.
The Jewish Museum of Deportation and Resistance has stood on the site of the Dossin barracks since 2005. In 2008, plans were announced for a new building on the other side of the square, designed by architect Bob Van Reeth, which, together with the barracks, will form the Kazerne Dossin Memorial Museum and Documentation Centre on the Holocaust and Human Rights. The museum, which will open in November, is financed by the government of Flanders and the city of Mechelen.
But visitors can already see the memorial, the centrepiece of which is a sculpture by the Antwerp artist Philip Aguirre y Otegui that depicts a table with a few dishes, left behind as the owners were rounded up by police. Under the table, three bodies lie beside one another, like on a tombstone.
In other rooms are some of the simple, everyday objects left behind by the deportees, now imbued with the tragedy of their ultimate fate. There are also photographs of some of the deportees and the barely audible voices of children from Belgian schools on 28 loudspeakers, intoning the names and ages of all those who went away on the 28 Dossin transports.
“We hope our murdered fathers, mothers and children will receive special attention because we are forever entrusted with the guarding of their memory,” said Eric Stroobants, citing the words of the recently late Natan Ramet, one of the prime instigators of the entire museum project. “Our aim is to make history vivid, in the hope of avoiding other genocides, of warning against hatred and racism.
The memorial will become a place of reflection and remembrance, as an important additional dimension to the museum. If those hopes are fulfilled, then we, the last witnesses, can go peacefully to our rest.”
Claude Marinower, deputy chairman of the Dossin project, said: “Our memory is the only place where millions of victims remind us of our duty. Slowly the day is approaching when the last eyewitness will disappear, and on our shoulders will rest the immense task of bringing this memory to the generations who follow us.”