The Reconstruction of the Antwerp Jewish Community after the Second World War (1944-1960)

Veerle Vanden Daelen, De heropbouw van de Joodse gemeenschap in Antwerpen na de Tweede Wereldoorlog (1944-1960). Lomir vayter zingen zeyer lid (The Reconstruction of the Jewish Community in Antwerp after the Second World War (1944-1960): Lomir vayter zingen zeyer lid), University of Antwerp, 2006 (Advisor: Prof. Dr. H. Van Goethem).

"Only a bold prophet would have predicted, in 1945, that Jewish life could again take hold in these [Western European] lands".  The Jewish world in Europe was in ruins and the human losses were indescribable. The possibilities for return to a ‘vanished world’ in Europe appeared depressing and discouraging, particularly for Antwerp, which in September 1944 had been left by the German occupier as officially judenrein.  Any reconstruction to be effected would have to begin from scratch. Yet the reconstruction of Jewish life in Antwerp is a clear fact today. Approximately 15,000 to 20,000 Jews live in Antwerp (40,000 to 50,000 in Belgium in total). The city counts about thirty orthodox synagogues, several Jewish schools, a flourishing social life, and a well developed system of social help. Many people are intrigued by the lively Jewish activity in the neighborhood around the central railway station and within the adjacent diamond district. This research studies the return of Jewish life to Antwerp after the Second World War. How did such a colorful and flourishing Jewish life emerge once more?

Some outlines for this research

The title of this research 'The Reconstruction of the Jewish Community in Antwerp after the Second World War' carries two problematic terms, namely, 'reconstruction' and 'the Jewish community'. Reconstruction is problematic because a large part of Antwerp’s pre-war Jewish population were victims of the Judeocide and because after the war significant numbers of Jews in the city were newcomers. Certain pre-war structures were indeed reconstructed but others were not, while some other structures emerged only after the war. This makes it difficult to speak of 'reconstruction'. Behind the structural continuity on the surface hides a more complex reality. 'The Jewish community' is problematic as a term because as a homogeneous group the Jewish community does not exist. Within this Jewish community there exist numerous intersections of myriad opposites, including religious and non-religious, Zionist and non-Zionist (and anti-Zionist), left and right. This PhD studies everyone who identified publicly as Jewish (religious, nationalist, cultural, or other). People who did not manifest themselves openly as Jewish, such as via concrete engagements, but who experienced or showed their Jewishness in a private way could not be retraced and thus do not figure in this study.
The chronological delineation is from the liberation of Antwerp, on September 4th, 1944, until 1960. I wished to study the reconstruction of the community until a period where a certain degree of ‘normalization’ after the war had again taken form. The urge for unity after the liberation was quite present in the decimated Jewish community, but as years passed more space emerged for diversity. The fact that the United Jewish Communities split in 1958 is one indication of this. Choosing a research period of sixteen years also provides the opportunity to discover evolutions. As a historian, I wanted to map long-term movements involving questions about continuity and discontinuity. To what degree did the Second World War form a breaking point with the pre-war period and did the ongoing evolutions in the Antwerp community take a different turn? Or was the war in fact a caesura, that is, a forced stop of the Jewish life which afterwards continued in the same way and still built on the same structures?
Scientific studies on this subject in Belgium are scarce. Historians and sociologists such as Jacques Gutwirth, Jean-Philippe Schreiber and Rudi Van Doorslaer have elaborated helpful pioneering work, but in general the subject remains fairly untouched. The traditional archival institutions in the country did not offer much relevant material. For documents on Antwerp’s Jewish community I relied mostly on contacts within the community and private archives. I was able to reconstruct the general tendencies of this reconstruction via different facts in records and letters kept at the archives of the Jewish community, the Central Jewish Consistory of Belgium (Centraal Israëlitisch Consistorie van België), and other Jewish organizations, as well as personal archives maintained by private individuals, articles from Jewish newspapers and magazines, and interviews. A significant amount of information on Antwerp’s Jewish population is kept outside the city or even outside Belgium. Many Jewish organizations deposited their archives in Israel and next to that do international Jewish organizations keep information on Antwerp in their reports from Belgium or through the postwar help projects they started there. Therefore this dissertation is also based on the archives of the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee, the Agudath Israel Archives, the YIVO Archives (Yiddisher Visenshaftlikher Institut/Institute for Jewish Research), the Yeshiva University Archives, all in New York; the United States National Archives in Washington DC; the American Jewish Archives in Cincinnati; the Central Zionist Archives, the additional archives of the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee, the Central Archives for the History of the Jewish People, Yad Vashem and the Israel State Archives, all in Jerusalem; the Haganah archives, the Jabotinsky Institute and the Lavon Institute, all in Tel-Aviv; and the Hashomer Hatsair archives in Givat Haviva.

Lomir vayter zingen zeyer lid

Lomir vayter zingen zeyer lid is the subtitle of this dissertation. It is Yiddish and means: "Let us continue to sing their song". This is a free adaptation of a quote from a teacher at the Antwerp Yiddishe Tsugabshul (Yiddish additional school, after the regular school hours) whose entire class from the ghetto of Lodz had perished. Speaking at the proclamation ceremony of the school on July 14th, 1946, she stated: "Der shenster monument, vos mir kenen shteln di Lodzer kinder iz: zingen vayter zeyer lid!"  (“The most beautiful monument that we can set up for the Lodzer children is: continue to sing their song!”) After the city’s liberation Jewish life in Antwerp “resumed”. The story of the years of reconstruction is not necessarily a spectacular one, full of unbelievable successes. Yet the fact that this reconstruction found place, within the Antwerp daily life, is very special. If historians only recently began studying the post-war Jewish reconstruction, this was likely partially because of the difficult but real combination of unspeakable suffering and the everydayness of the reconstruction.
There were enormous needs in the first months after the liberation. These included dealing with the return of homeless and penniless Jews and their attendant conditions, searching for survivors, and initial attempts at restitution or indemnification of goods. But quite often it was found that homes of Jews were being occupied by strangers (who had moved into the empty homes in the absence of their Jewish residents) and that household effects had disappeared. Without clothes of their own and without roofs over their heads, and often without news about the whereabouts of their spouses, parents, children, brothers, sisters, and friends, survivors endeavored to pick up their lives as well as they could. Why did surviving Jews return to such an extent to Antwerp, a city where persecution had assailed them so severely? And, even more importantly, what made them stay? Antwerp, being a port city, remained (as before the war) an ideal transit spot in immigration to the United States or elsewhere. Yet a significant number of such persons in transit opted to end their immigration journeys in the port city and stayed in Antwerp. In particular, a considerable number of Jewish immigrants chose to make Antwerp their new home. What made for Antwerp’s success as a settlement place for Jews?
Two factors played a crucial role for the return and (especially) the lasting presence of Jews in Antwerp, namely, the diamond industry and Jewish Orthodoxy. The importance of these factors was hardly new. Diamonds and Orthodoxy, like Antwerp’s transit function, had from even before the war been a decisive element in the destination choices of Jewish immigrants, especially those from Eastern Europe. Thorough preparations for the post-war rekindling of Antwerp’s diamond trade and sector were being arranged from London even before Antwerp’s liberation, and this greatly facilitated the post-liberation return of the city’s Jewish diamond diaspora. Jewish diamond traders and workers from New York and elsewhere in America returned to Antwerp, and newcomers could be easily integrated into the sector. The diamond sector re-emerged as the central economic niche for the majority of Jews in Antwerp. Jewish religious life could be restored thanks to efforts of Jewish inhabitants who had lived in the city before the war, and this helped make quick reconstruction possible. More specifically, Orthodoxy would form the frame in which Jewish life in Antwerp would develop after the war. One result of Antwerp having a well developed and organized Orthodox religious life was that most Jewish newcomers to the city were also Orthodox Jews. The combination within Antwerp of the diamond sector and Jewish Orthodoxy re-established the city as a "Jerusalem of the North", a city where the organization and growth of redeveloping Jewish life existed in symbiosis with the diamond sector.
Lomir vayter zingen zeyer lid… 65% of Antwerp’s registered Jewish population had been deported to concentration and extermination camps and very few of these deportees survived. The choir continued to sing after the war, but it was decimated and many voices were missing. Did this smaller strength sing the same song as had been heard before the war? To what extent did the post-liberation Jewish community of Antwerp resemble the community from the period prior to the Nazi occupation? Orthodoxy, to be sure, resounded as strongly as before. The Orthodox Jewish life, which had begun developing strongly in Antwerp from the end of the 19th century, continued growing in importance throughout the community. There was rising diversity of Orthodoxy within the official Orthodox Jewish communities and a growing number and diversity of Hassidic groups. The war did not constitute a breaking point for the Orthodoxy. Indeed, in terms of their percentages within the general Jewish community, the Orthodox population increased as compared to the pre-war period. Besides the surviving Orthodox Jews in Antwerp who had lived in the city before the war, Jewish migrants were now arriving in Antwerp from the Eastern European shtetelekh, the typical Jewish villages and small towns in Eastern Europe whose Jewish inhabitants had been in mass victim of persecutions, the Judeocide, and pogroms. Uprooted Hassidic and other Orthodox Jews were finding their way to Antwerp, a city that offered them a favorable environment for continuing their Eastern European shtetl life. The founding in Antwerp of yeshivot (religious seminaries), and shtiebelekh (small prayer and study houses) kept alive what had been built up in Eastern Europe before the war. This migration also brought changes to the outward appearance of the Jewish community. The newcomers often had very distinctive dress and hair styles. Orthodox life was becoming characterized by internal rigidity within the different tendencies. Examples of this include the growing recognizability of Orthodox Jews and the increasing numbers of Jewish children in Jewish day schools. No other Jewish community in Western Europe includes such a high percentage of Orthodox Jews. This aspect became so dominant that even non-religious or non-Orthodox Jewish newcomers were invited to join the Orthodox community and became part of this Orthodox whole.
The voice of Antwerp's Jewish leftwing, which even before the war had never been especially strong, sounded very weak after the city’s liberation and softly faded away. The Judeocide had struck the workforce in Antwerp especially hard, leaving too few surviving workers to organize themselves again into specific workers’ unions or organizations as before the war. Non-Zionist Jewish socialism, which had never been strong in Antwerp, disappeared completely from the scene. Jewish communist initiatives lost their major support with the outbreak of the Cold War and after Stalin’s anti-Jewish politics became known. Zionist leftist movements, however, remained active. Strengthened by successes of the left in Palestine/Israel, the leftist Zionistic parties could count on the sympathy of Antwerp’s Jewish inhabitants for the elections of the Zionist Congress. Their youth movements were amongst the Zionist movement’s most strident. Yet this stridency quickly led to the movement’s almost complete disappearance from Antwerp, as the most active and influential members departed to help build the Jewish state. Their successes ebbed particularly after 1960, in the years subsequent to the period examined here. Today, the leftist Zionist movement has disappeared from the Antwerp scene. The absence of a Jewish leftwing has contributed to the marked religious profile of Jewish Antwerp.
Lomir vayter zingen zeyer lid, let us continue to sing their song… A constant throughout this research is that the Jews of Brussels and Antwerp, the Belgian cities with the largest Jewish populations, seemed to sing in different keys. The respective organization and structure of these Jewish communities differed strongly, as they had even before the war. This dissimilarity not only continued after the war but became even more explicit. Jews in Antwerp lived concentrated around the central railway station and were active mainly in one economic sector. In Brussels, on the contrary, the Jewish population was spread throughout the entire city and cohesion amongst Jews was far lower than in Antwerp.
Immediately after Antwerp’s liberation, the few surviving Jews in the city had to unify their forces; they had to sing 'in unison', together in one and the same voice. This meant (among other things): one Jewish school, one ritual bathing house, one religious Jewish community, one undertaker service, one organization for social aid. To the outside world, Jews in Antwerp seemed obviously a very close minority group, and one with a great sense of unity. But such (perceived or real) unity among Jews does not necessarily suggest that they were a single uniform group. One should instead speak of a 'unity in diversity', not least because Orthodoxy itself is not a homogeneous bloc. Indeed, when Shomre Hadas and Machsike Hadas, Antwerp’s two largest Jewish communities, united after the war into the 'Vereenigde Israëlitische Gemeenten' (United Jewish Communities), there remained clear differences between them. The two groups split apart in 1958. In addition to such difference there were also numerous Hassidic groups, all of whom had specific characteristics and distinctiveness. The Jewish day schools likewise evidenced Orthodox heterogeneity, as each school was different from the others in myriad respects ranging from size and whether both boys and girls were admitted to curriculum and calendar. This multi-voiced Orthodox choir did not always sound harmonious. But it continued singing and the Orthodox basis of its refrain stayed very much in tune. Nor did working in diamonds always stand for a single or homogenous profession. In Antwerp’s diamond district alone there was a wide range of diamond dealers and diamond workers. Within Jewish social life, all convictions remained – including left and right, religious and non-religious, Zionist and non-Zionist and anti-Zionist – although to the outside world it was the religious field that became dominant.
In Antwerp the unity of Jews (through their ‘being Jewish’) has led to a specific organization of a minority group in the city that is quite remarkable. Education, social care, religion, and social life are organized within the community, as if in a Jewish private atmosphere. It is financed essentially through Jewish sources. A private law system such as this requires a large identification of Jews with their Jewishness, as contributions are not legally fixed. For the system to be successful, a very strong group feeling is needed, even though this concept is hard to delineate. The group connection ‘rejuvenates’ itself through the exceptionally high percentage of Jewish children attending Jewish day schools; this was especially the case in the post-war period. This has contributed to even stronger cohesion within the group. Jewish Antwerp even has a sort of 'Antwerp patriotism' and knew very well what it wanted. Both Jewish and non-Jewish people in Antwerp regard the social infrastructure, and the passion with which Jews in Antwerp continue to develop it, with high regard and even amazement. This infrastructure is in accordance with Orthodox religious standards. The trauma of the Judeocide reinforced the significance of being Jewish. This is most clear in matters concerning Jewish children in Antwerp after the war, who are the future for Jewish life in the generations to come. The ‘children’s question’ (‘kinderkwestie’), the discussions over the return of Jewish war-orphans who had survived the war in non-Jewish environments, and the discussions concerning Jewish education evidence this very clearly.
The strong unity among Jews in Antwerp has in some ways stigmatized the community as being a ‘closed’ community. There continues to be a degree of isolation from non-Jewish Antwerpians, but this can be regarded as a positive form of segregation, that is, a segregation to protect a group’s values, religion, and culture, and to help in the assistance and integration of newcomers. As we see in this research, there even exists a sort of Antwerp Jewish 'chauvinism', and this is the clearest proof that Jews in Antwerp definitely feel ‘Antwerpian’. Jews in Antwerp know the songs of Antwerp and Belgium, but above all they are proud to still be singing - loudly and fervently - the Jewish song, a song that the persecution and Judeocide had attempted to let disappear forever. It is to the tones of this song that the Jews of Antwerp wanted to see their children growing up.


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