At Europe’s first Museum of Human Rights, it’s not just the contents of the building that will cause you to stop and think – even the building itself has a part to play. This unforgiving white block structure consists of a series of bricked up windows, with each brick representing someone deported to Auschwitz-Birkenau from the Dossin barracks here in Mechelen, most likely ending their life at the concentration camp. Looking up from the street, you can hardly comprehend that there are over 25,000 bricks, but that’s just one of the realities you’ll face as a visitor to Kazerne Dossin.
Another aspect of the site that will stop you in your tracks is the huge photo wall spanning several floors and filled with black and white portraits of Jewish detainees. Look closer and you’ll realise a few of the photos have a sepia, rather than pure black, tinge; these are the survivors.
The events of the Holocaust are used as the main focus of the museum, driven by the part that Mechelen unfortunately played due to the Nazis’ control of Belgium. However, it’s not just WWII that comes under historical scrutiny – more recent events such as the genocide in Cambodia and Rwanda and apartheid in South Africa are examined as well, with small displays on the first, second and third floors and an introductory video on the ground floor linking all of the atrocities. Human rights issues are addressed throughout the building and questions are posed about how the masses can be conditioned to discriminate.
On the first floor, called Mass, the exhibition takes you through the politics and social situation of Germany from 1918-1940, followed by the same time period as experienced by Jews in Belgium. Through photographs and various pieces of propaganda, an overall timeline emerges, helped by the in-depth research in the Visitors’ Guide which fills you in on the back story behind every single exhibit. What’s made clear is that the Jewish community was an integral part of Belgian society, with well established family businesses selling everything from fresh bread at Bloch’s bakery to coveted diamonds at Adler, and many Jewish citizens holding prominent positions, such as that of Lieutenant-General Louis Bernheim. This makes their removal from Belgian life in the coming years all the more shocking.
After the German occupation in May 1940, things moved quickly. It wasn’t long before anti-Jewish regulations were put in place and Jews had to be formally identified and registered; one section of the exhibition draws attention to the practice of teenagers being asked to register as Jews when they turned 15. By 1942, many Jews were being made to undertake ‘compulsory labour’ whilst having their own businesses or careers destroyed; there were also mass arrests. The second floor, Fear, addresses this period head-on, with a range of short videos detailing personal experiences of persecution, arrest and detention, each story more shocking than the last. Labour call-ups were issued to 10,000 Jews, asking them to report to the Dossin barracks, and people complied because they felt they had no choice. They believed they’d be sent to the East to work, but had no idea of the hell they were going into.
It may feel like there was little opposition to the treatment of the Jews, but many Belgians disagreed with what the Nazis were enforcing, with Brussels’ district mayors collectively opposing the Nazi introduction of yellow star badges. There were also huge numbers of resistance organisations, something which I addressed in a blog post when I visited the Museum of Resistance in Brussels. Furthermore, 15,000 Jews were hidden in Belgium during the German occupation, with many retreating to the countryside or placed in orphanages – it’s fascinating to hear their stories here.
There were 28 transports from Mechelen to Auschwitz-Birkenau, as described on floor three, which is simply called Death. Detainees were held at Dossin barracks with the aim of dispatching them in groups of 1,000. Meticulous records tell visitors about each transport, with painfully bleak statistics – for example, Transport III left Mechelen on 15th August 1942 with 1,000 people on board, five of whom survived the concentration camp. Three days later, Transport IV left on 18th August with a further 1,000 people, none of whom survived. Meanwhile, it’s noted that Transport XX was the first to use cattle trucks, which seems all the more chilling when you consider the inhumane treatment of those trapped inside.
Ultimately, survival statistics are described as ‘barely 5%’ of those deported, with two thirds of the Jewish deportees being gassed immediately on arrival, and the remainder set aside for slave labour. Aside from the Mechelen transports, this third floor also looks at extermination in ghettos across Eastern Europe, and the Nazi killings of disabled and mentally ill patients. It’s an overwhelming sight to take in all of the photographic evidence, but I also believe it’s important that such things are put on display and used to educate and remind us.
Art and Vision
My visit coincided with a temporary exhibition on the top floor by Antwerp-born painter Jan Vanriet, called Losing Face. Vanriet had deep personal connections to the events of WWII – many of his relatives, including his grandmother, were involved in the clandestine press and later in the resistance. They were then arrested and sent to concentration camps; in fact, Vanriet’s parents actually met in Mauthausen. There seems no more appropriate artist to tackle the challenge of painting some of the disappeared Jewish victims of the Holocaust.
Vanriet has certainly created some poignant works here, including a series of four paintings depicting his uncle and grandmother before their arrest, playing the accordion against simplistic backdrops. His portraits of children are equally effective, with the painter capturing their wide-eyed innocence in just a few brushstrokes. By putting a face to those who disappeared, the artist is preserving their memory and giving them dignity. If you want to read more about the exhibition, there’s a useful overview (using Google Translate on the original Flemish!) at the Mechelen Blogt website.
As you can tell, I drew so much from Kazerne Dossin, and I’d thoroughly recommend this museum. It’s a sobering experience to learn about the 28 transports and also to see human rights issues in a wider context.
Visiting Notes: You can delve even more into the past when you step inside the Dossin barracks, across the road from the museum. Whilst some of the barracks is now divided into flats, there is a memorial here and a documentation centre, both of which deserve your attention. Highlights include a recorded reading of victims’ names in Dutch, French and English, and preserved objects from the holding camp. At the side of the building there’s even a restored train carriage used in 1943 transportations.
Disclaimer: This trip was planned with the assistance of Visit Flanders and input from Tourism Mechelen. To find further information about travelling to Brussels, please see www.visitflanders.co.uk for more details.