Meshulem Adler alias Fried, his wife Blima Kepesova, and their youngest children Mesel and Pepi: deported grandparents, uncle and aunt of project initiator Ms. Gaby Morris. (source: File 1586017 and 7408326 of the Belgian Aliens Police – digitised by Kazerne Dossin; Morris family archive)
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.
The obligatory labour of their men meant a huge transition for their families: from being part of the pre-war society to existing on the margins of it. However, the fate of these relatives remained unresearched. Existing historical publications focussed foremost on the OT-camps in northern France and the Jewish men taken there.2 No monograph or project was dedicated to the full picture of Jewish families in Antwerp with men sent to OT-camps in northern France. This project seeks to make those connections. It wishes to open up the already existing research to new audiences (by publishing in English, for example) and to broaden the scope of the research. In order to broaden and deepen the knowledge on the topic, we worked on a macro and a micro level. This included as a first focus the creation of a database to determine the deportation and survival percentages of the OT-men and their families. Parallel to this work, micro-histories were analysed on about 20 families, in order to seek for clues and pieces of information to reconstruct what happened to them. As a third element to the project, we wished to use maps for the public presentation of this history and the project. Soon it became apparent that the maps themselves were a third research element, a tool of analysis on their own. GIS or other geolocation tools could be used to add a time-element to such mappings to analyse and visualise the history. This blog contribution will further elaborate on each of these three focus points of the research project.