L’impossible Oubli: Brussels’ National Museum of the Resistance

Identity Cards from Belgium WWII

On a side street in the unassuming neighbourhood of Clemenceau, a bright banner flutters in the breeze. It is the only sign indicating that one of Brussels’ best museums can be found here in Rue Van Lint, behind a plain door. I ring the buzzer beside the door and I’m soon whisked away from the street, into an incredibly detailed and rich collection of Resistance propaganda, concentration camp evidence and even documents covering the Spanish Civil War and the Battle of Stalingrad.

It’s 9:10am and, as I will shortly discover, I’m the first visitor of the morning – greeted by the museum owner, who swiftly begins a grand switching on of all the main lights and cabinet lights in the large rooms that make up the exhibition space. He returns, after his work is done, to begin an impromptu and unofficial guided tour in a mixture of French and English, drawing my attention to some of the strongest areas of the collection, which mainly focuses on resistance efforts between 1940-1945, during the German occupation of Belgium.

Inside a Resistance Museum
A glance at some of the incredible exhibits.

Fake identity cards stand against real ones for comparison; there are copies of anti-Nazi propaganda issued by resistance groups, fiercely telling locals not to buy German products; a model shows saboteurs on a railway line, determined to interrupt supplies to the Germans.

The collection’s diversity also means that many different strands of the resistance are covered, as there wasn’t one singular organisation controlling the opposition to the occupiers. The main ones included the Secret Army (AS, or Armée secrète), the Legion Belge, the Independent Front (FI, or Front de l’Indépendance), the Belgian National Movement (MBN) and the Armed Partisans (PA). Each group had its own ideology, tactics and specialisms.

Dual identity cards from 1940s
The owner pointed out the duplicated IDs on show.

Whilst the language barrier in the exhibits means that I don’t get a totally comprehensive grasp of everything on display, there’s loads to pique my curiosity, including relics from the SOE (Special Operations Executive) who worked with various Belgian resistance groups. Having read up on the SOE, it’s surreal to see some of the weapons they would have carried on their very dangerous missions in Belgium.

Additionally, a large part of the first exhibition room focuses on the clandestine press, in particular a spoof edition of the German-controlled newspaper Le Soir, which was distributed in Brussels on 9th November 1943 by the FI and was referred to as Le Faux Soir. It mocked the Nazis and brought a smile to those who read it, but the Gestapo did track down the men responsible for the 100,000 distributed copies of Le Faux Soir and arrested them, leading to prison sentences and even death.

Mannequin with Dachau uniform in museum
All of the Nazi concentration camps are detailed in this part of the museum.

Moving into the corridor, the focus turns to the concentration camps. Images of the most prominent women in the resistance stand opposite a painting of Ravensbrück; an authentic Dachau uniform seems chillingly fresh after all these years. I find it hard to turn away from the photos taken at the camps, detailing the horror of these places and their emaciated residents in black and white. Quite rightly, a scrolling caption runs through these exhibits: ‘L’impossible oubli’ – impossible to forget.

In the midst of all this seriousness, light relief comes in the form of two friendly pet cats, belonging to a man in the building, who treat the museum as their playground. They happily slink between mannequins and cabinets, oblivious to the subject matter.

Camp uniform from prisoner at Dachau
The familiar blue striped uniform of the prisoners, along with an identification number.

There’s just so much to see here that it’s unsurprising the museum appeals to school groups and university students. Upstairs lies a dedicated classroom-sized area, ready for presentations, whilst downstairs there’s a small library with shelf upon shelf of reading material, primarily in French, Flemish and German, waiting to be studied. Above the library, a silk parachute is suspended as if in mid-descent.

At the end of my visit I happily pop some money into the donation box, but I can’t believe there’s no official charge for seeing this incredible place. Furthermore, the government doesn’t provide any funding, so donations are crucial to the Museum of Resistance’s survival. My parting message? Don’t let this museum fall into obscurity. Visit it, support it and shout about it, because topics such as the Belgian Resistance movements shouldn’t be allowed to fall by the wayside – they need to be constantly discussed and kept alive.

Library area with mannequin radio operator
Beside the library is an area detailing clandestine media operations via radio bulletins.

Visiting Note: Opening hours are very specific so do bear this in mind before turning up on a whim. Plan to avoid disappointment! The museum is open from Monday-Tuesday and Thursday-Friday between 9am-12pm and then 1pm-4pm. Wednesday opening can be arranged by appointment.

Disclaimer: This trip was planned with the assistance of Visit Flanders and input from Visit Brussels. To find further information about travelling to Brussels, please see www.visitflanders.co.uk for more details.