Belgium's Historical Tragedy: From Saving Jews to Killing Them

I owe my life to Belgians.

My brother, my sister, my late mother of sainted memory, and I survived the Holocaust because heroic Belgians, at the risk of their own lives, sheltered us during the last two years of the German occupation.

So, understandably, it came as a double-shock when, on May 24, dispatches from Belgium carried the news that a gunman had targeted the Jewish Museum in the center of Brussels, opened fire, and killed four people.  The authorities pointed to “apparent” anti-Semitism as the motive.

In terms of my own reactions, I’m left with two Belgiums.

There is the first Belgium, during World War II, when we were in hiding in the village of Burdinne from 1942 to 1944.  Giving us shelter was a Christian widow, Juliette Putzeys, who treated us like her own family.  Giving her full support was a local Catholic priest, Chanoine Jean Cottiaux.  Both Madame Putzeys and Chanoine Cottiaux  have been deservedly recognized by Yad Vashem as “Righteous Among the Nations.”

Their readiness to put their lives on the line drew full backing from Burdinne’s villagers.  So widespread was their support that it was deemed safe for me to attend the local public school.  And these were by no means the only Belgians who saved Jews. 

Still, the fate of Jews in Belgium during the war was marred by many Nazi collaborators.  A Belgian unit even fought alongside the Werhmacht on the eastern front.

But in terms of my own personal reminiscences and lasting impressions, the first Belgium still shines brightly.

The second Belgium – a very different slice of history – didn’t start with today’s gunfire against a Jewish target in the heart of Brussels.  For many years now, anti-Semitism in Belgium has grown to  worrisome heights – with Brussels and Antwerp turning into danger zones for Jews.

This more recent Belgium – with glaring anti-Semitism evident even among the political establishment – has been displacing the first Belgium for some time.  The shootings in the heart of Brussels seem but the final, inevitable result of spreading Jew-hatred in Belgium

After World War II, when the full horrors of the Holocaust pierced Western societies, it was widely assumed that anti-Semitism had been eliminated once and for all.  Now, in retrospect, it was but an illusion.  A bitter one at that.

I can’t help but feel that Madame Putzeys and Chanoine Cottiaux were lucky not to have witnessed this grotesque second Belgium.

I owe my life to Belgians.

My brother, my sister, my late mother of sainted memory, and I survived the Holocaust because heroic Belgians, at the risk of their own lives, sheltered us during the last two years of the German occupation.

So, understandably, it came as a double-shock when, on May 24, dispatches from Belgium carried the news that a gunman had targeted the Jewish Museum in the center of Brussels, opened fire, and killed four people.  The authorities pointed to “apparent” anti-Semitism as the motive.

In terms of my own reactions, I’m left with two Belgiums.

There is the first Belgium, during World War II, when we were in hiding in the village of Burdinne from 1942 to 1944.  Giving us shelter was a Christian widow, Juliette Putzeys, who treated us like her own family.  Giving her full support was a local Catholic priest, Chanoine Jean Cottiaux.  Both Madame Putzeys and Chanoine Cottiaux  have been deservedly recognized by Yad Vashem as “Righteous Among the Nations.”

Their readiness to put their lives on the line drew full backing from Burdinne’s villagers.  So widespread was their support that it was deemed safe for me to attend the local public school.  And these were by no means the only Belgians who saved Jews. 

Still, the fate of Jews in Belgium during the war was marred by many Nazi collaborators.  A Belgian unit even fought alongside the Werhmacht on the eastern front.

But in terms of my own personal reminiscences and lasting impressions, the first Belgium still shines brightly.

The second Belgium – a very different slice of history – didn’t start with today’s gunfire against a Jewish target in the heart of Brussels.  For many years now, anti-Semitism in Belgium has grown to  worrisome heights – with Brussels and Antwerp turning into danger zones for Jews.

This more recent Belgium – with glaring anti-Semitism evident even among the political establishment – has been displacing the first Belgium for some time.  The shootings in the heart of Brussels seem but the final, inevitable result of spreading Jew-hatred in Belgium

After World War II, when the full horrors of the Holocaust pierced Western societies, it was widely assumed that anti-Semitism had been eliminated once and for all.  Now, in retrospect, it was but an illusion.  A bitter one at that.

I can’t help but feel that Madame Putzeys and Chanoine Cottiaux were lucky not to have witnessed this grotesque second Belgium.

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