Mechelen played a sobering part in the history of WWII. Within the city, the Kazerne Dossin museum and military barracks serve as a permanent history and memorial to the Jews who were held there awaiting deportation to Nazi concentration camps.
The Kazerne Dossin museum of ‘deportation and resistance’ was initially housed in the former Dossin barracks until a new purpose built building, containing a more permanent exhibition took its place.
The Dossin barracks was a waiting room for death for more than 25,000 Jews and gypsies from Belgium and Northern France during the Second World War. The museum serves as memorial to those deportees and as a poignant reminder that atrocities still occur today and invites the visitor to ask questions and look for answers.
From Museum website:
The barracks were designated ‘Sammellager’, a transit camp for Jews and gypsies. The central location of the barracks (between Antwerp and Brussels where most of the Jews lived), the railway next to the barracks, and the enclosed structure made this location the ideal deportation centre. Between July 1942 and September 1944, 25,492 Jews and 352 gypsies were rounded up and transported to Auschwitz-Birkenau and to a number of smaller concentration camps. Two-third of the deported persons was gassed immediately upon arrival. At the liberation of the camps, only 1,395 were still alive. On 30 May 1948, a commemorative plaque was attached to the façade of the Dossin barracks as commemoration to this abomination. Since 1956, an annual ceremony is organised to commemorate the victims.
Between 1942 and 1944, 25,484 Jews and 352 gypsies were deported from the barracks to Auschwitz-Birkenau. Only 5% (approximately 1200 – 1300) returned!
The museums introductory film presents some chilling images and poses some disturbing questions. The film highlights the part that Belgium played in the Holocaust and touches upon other human rights issues in recent times.
The Kazerne Dossin museum deals with wider issues than the ‘Belgian Case’ and deportation of the Jews by focusing on massive violence as a central theme. Starting with the Holocaust it looks at how group pressure and collective violence can, under certain conditions, lead to mass murder and genocide. The behaviours of instigators and opportunists are explored and how they instigate collective violence. It questions why individuals find it difficult to say, ‘No’.
An enormous photo wall spans five floors showing the faces of the 25,856 deportees and their human aspect contrasts with those whose propaganda and mass hysteria persecuted the deportees and threatened them with annihilation.
Within the museum two of the rooms are dedicated to present the names and faces of those who were deported therefore breaching the anonymity of the victims and going against the aim of the Nazis which was to extinguish them without a trace.
The museum is both sobering and thought provoking, inviting the visitor to ask questions and look for answers.
A railway ran alongside the barracks and today a restored railway goods wagon that had been used to transport the Jews from the barracks to Auschwitz Birkenau can be seen next to the barracks in the place where the tracks used to lie.
The former barracks have now been turned into residential apartments but a memorial remains in one corner of the Dossin barracks. When I stepped into the quadrangle I heard the beautiful sound of birds singing and it was so peaceful that I found it difficult to imagine the sadness of its former use.
We must ensure that we remember, think and act to stop these atrocities recurring…