LEFT BEHIND – A PROJECT
OPENING UP LITTLE KNOWN HOLOCAUST HISTORIES
AS WELL AS NEW TOOLS
One such precious item is the clandestine diary of Mozes Sand. Between June 13 and September 12, 1942 over 2.250 Jewish men were deported from Belgium to Northern France as forced labourers for Organisation Todt (OT). Mozes was one of them. In his diary he describes many details that can hardly be found in other sources: the journey of the men, their living and working conditions at the campsites, the ways in which they could communicate with their loved ones who stayed behind in Belgium…
The importance of such personal documents for research on the OT forced labour became apparent when, on January 15, 2019, Veerle Vanden Daelen received a message from Gaby Morris. Gaby wrote that her father along with a brother escaped Belgium in May 1940 to join the Czech army in exile and that they were evacuated to Britain. Both survived the war. Gaby’s father returned to Antwerp as a member of the liberating troops to discover that his parents and two younger siblings had been deported from the SS-Sammellager Mecheln (Dossin barracks) to Auschwitz-Birkenau, and were murdered. However, Kazerne Dossin then informed Gaby that in fact her grandfather, Meshulem, had been deported from Antwerp, Belgium, to the Organisation Todt labour camp Les Mazures in Northern France from where he was sent directly to Auschwitz. So it was her grandmother, uncle and aunt who had in fact been deported from Mechelen. This new information on OT labour led to many questions: What had been the consequences for the family left behind in Antwerp? What must the family’s situation have been like after Meshulem was taken away? Did they hear from him, directly or indirectly? Was there any support for these families in general?
So many unanswered questions with – in the case of Gaby Morris – nobody to testify about what happened. Could archival evidence then perhaps shed light on the situation of the OT families? Meetings with Gaby on International Holocaust Remembrance Day in 2019 and discussing with her the lack of knowledge on OT labour evolved into the Left Behind project. Kazerne Dossin and the Morris family joined forces to delve into this little known aspect of the racial persecution in Belgium, which had an especially large impact on Antwerp’s Jewish population: How did the OT campaign affect survival changes and how did the families deal with the absence of their men, fathers, brothers and sons? The goal of the project was to create an easily online accessible and understandable research product, which provides general information on the OT labour to a broad public. Kazerne Dossin was thus challenged to implement new research methods and presentation tools such as maps, which would turn out to be important research tools themselves in the course of the project.
JEWISH MEN FROM ANTWERP IN FORCED LABOUR FOR ORGANISATION TODT IN NORTHERN FRANCE
For the Left Behind project, it is important to understand firstly who was “left behind” and in which context. From June 13 until September 12, 1942, over 2.250 Jewish men from Belgium were summoned for forced labour in Northern France by OT. Six trains left from Antwerp, and one each from Brussels, Liège and Charleroi. The men were sent to the Les Mazures work camp in the French Ardennes or to similar camps at the French coast such as Dannes, Camiers, St-Omer or Calais. There they worked on constructions that would become part of the Atlantic Wall, such as roads, bunkers and electrical provisions. The large majority of these 2.250 men were from Antwerp. When they were taken away, they left behind their spouses, children, parents and further family and friends. During their detainment in France the men communicated with their loved ones and, in theory1, a very small wage was paid to their next of kin who had stayed behind in Belgium. Both elements could have prompted the families of these OT workers to remain at their legal address where the risk of being arrested was greater. In October 1942, most of the OT workers were directly deported from the labour camps in Northern France to Auschwitz-Birkenau, although dozens had escaped from the work camps already or would escape from the deportation trains. The Jews with Belgian nationality or those married to non-Jewish women were kept at the camps in Northern France in October 1942. They were deported later on from Drancy. Only a few dozen of the 2.250 men survived the war.
Almost half of the Jewish population of Belgium was murdered during the Holocaust. Complete families were wiped out, creating blind spots in the information available to reconstruct their stories in particular, but also certain aspects of the Belgian case in general. Personal documents of survivors and non-survivors thus become even more important to fill these gaps in our knowledge.
Veerle Vanden Daelen, Dorien Styven - Kazerne Dossin