By: Dorien Styven, Give Them a Face project leader and researcher at Kazerne Dossin
Kazerne Dossin – Memorial, Museum and Documentation Center on Holocaust and Human Rights is located in Mechelen, Belgium, in the former Dossin barracks which served as an SS-Sammellager for Jews, Roma and Sinti from 27 July 1942 until the Liberation on 4 September 1944. 25.274 Jews and 354 Roma and Sinti were deported from the Dossin Barracks to Auschwitz-Birkenau. Another 218 Jews were deported to Bergen-Belsen, Buchenwald, Ravensbrück and Vittel. Less than 5% survived deportation.
A unique archival source
Since the late 19th century, Belgium has been a transit country for people from all over Europe trying to reach territories overseas to build a new life. However, thousands of migrants and refugees remained in Belgium for various reasons such as health issues, difficulties obtaining visa, marriages and births, etc. By the time Nazi-Germany invaded Belgium on 10 May 1940, the Jewish population was very diverse, ranging from ultra-orthodox to atheist, from politically far left to extremely conservative, from extremely wealthy to downright poor. On October 28th 1940, the Germans made a decree ordering that all Jews ages 15 and older must be registered with the municipality. An unintended outcome of this registration was that it offered previously unknown census data, revealing the structure of Jewish society that had blossomed in Antwerp and Brussels, and to a lesser extent in Liège and Charleroi. The numbers showed a distinctive Polish presence and a high number of Germans, while Belgians only accounted for at most 10% of the total population– 55.000 to 60.000 people (the Sicherheitspolizei-Sicherheitsdienst registered 56.000 individuals as of 1941).
The migration background of most Jews in Belgium inspired a key project initiated by the Jewish Museum of Deportation and Resistance (JDMR), a predecessor of Kazerne Dossin. In the early 2000s, Ward Adriaens, director of the JMDR, was able to convince the Minister of Internal Affairs to allow the JMDR access to over 2,7 million immigration files, created by the Belgian Office for Immigration Affairs. The JMDR had noticed that most of the immigration files contained a questionnaire, filled out upon arrival, in addition to a photo of the migrant or refugee. As over 90% of the Jewish population in Belgium consisted of migrants and refugees, this meant that these files would most likely contain portraits of a majority of the deportees of the Dossin barracks. Thus, the Give Them a Face project, which worked to identify the correct files and scan the photos, was launched in 2005 under the supervision of Patricia Ramet, daughter of camp survivor and JMDR chairman Natan Ramet.
Between 2005 and 2009, over 18.000 photos were scanned from the immigration files and carefully catalogued. During the process of scanning, word about the The Give Them a Face project spread and Jewish families in Belgium and abroad started to present photos to the JMDR to be added to the photo collection. As the immigration files often didn’t contain photos of children arriving in the country, nor were photos of children born in Belgium from non-Belgian parents added to the files, this support from the community greatly enriched the project. By 2009, 18.522 portraits of the 25.628 deportees had been collected. That year, the four volume series Mechelen-Auschwitz, 1942-1944. The destruction of Jews and gypsies from Belgium was published. Many Holocaust survivors, including hidden children, were very touched by the project as they had never before seen photos of their parents who were killed in the camps. The Give Them a Face project struck a chord with many, and upon publication, many relatives sent photos to the JMDR to add to the collection. In 2009-2017, the JMDR received 1.341 additional portraits. Also as a result of the success of the project, the JMDR launched a second phase of the project, collecting from the immigration files photos of Jews living in Belgium but deported from France . This led to the collection of 4.169 photos of 5.877 deportees and the publication of these portraits in Drancy-Auschwitz in 2015 (Herman Van Goethem e.a., Drancy-Auschwitz, 1942-1944. Jews from Belgium deported via France, ASP, Brussels, 2015.)
Today, JMDR’s successor, Kazerne Dossin, still continues this work, focussing on the immigration files as a whole, and holds over 1 million scans of over 20.000 files of Jews, Roma and Sinti living in Belgium before or during the Second World War. The files are accessible both at the Belgian State Archives in Brussels and at the Kazerne Dossin reading room. The files are a rich documentation source on the life of migrants and refugees in Belgium with documents including discussions about work permits, support letters and recommendations, information on the reasons for migrating, plans for further migration, judicial documents, police reports on the arrest of refugees who immigrated illegally, etc.
Connecting past and present
When working on the new permanent exhibition at Kazerne Dossin in 2010-2012, the museographer made the collected portraits of the deportees into the backbone of the museum building. A wall, containing 25.000 photos stretches from the third floor to the ground floor. Every deportee leaving from Mechelen is represented on the wall, be it with a photo or just a silhouette if a photo has not yet been found. The photos literally stare back at the visitors, confronting them with the individuality of the deportees.
Kazerne Dossin actively continues to reach out to friends and family members of deportees and to researchers, research institutes and archives worldwide to find new photos. Since the opening of the new exhibition, Kazerne Dossin yearly organizes a commemoration during which newly found photos are added to the commemoration wall, thus continuing the Give Them a Face project. The yearly ceremony consists of a speech with stories of photos found, the reading of the names while showing the photos and the opportunity for families from all over the world to visit the photos of their lost loved ones on the photo wall.
In 2013, 139 were added, 73 in 2014, 168 in 2015 and 102 in 2016, and last year an unprecedented amount were added to the portrait wall– 265 new photos. This was largely the work of Rafid Alsaad. As a museum focusing on both Holocaust and Human Rights, Kazerne Dossin actively tries to live up to its museum mission by giving recent arrivals an opportunity to work at the documentation center for a year. Rafid arrived in Belgium from Syria in 2015. As a staff member of the Kazerne Dossin documentation center, he started off scanning historical records, but as a political sciences student, quickly proved to be an invaluable researcher as he set out to analyze archives of institutes worldwide in an attempt to find new photos. His work became a huge success. During the ceremony on 30 November 2017 Rafid took the stand in front of 250 people, many of whom were relatives of deportees, and explained his motivation:
My name is Rafid. I come from Syria. I have been in Belgium for 2 years now and I live in Mechelen. I have been working at Kazerne Dossin since 4 May 2017. My first project was to search for photos of deported persons. I used the Yad Vashem website. I compared the website to the list of persons whose portraits were still missing on the commemoration wall. I found 175 new photos.
[…] This project is very important to the family members of those deported from the Dossin barracks. I learned about the Holocaust at school and I read a lot about it, but I never truly grasped the meaning of the word.
Today, I understand. They were individuals. They had their own lives, went to work and had children. They were not simply numbers on a list. Do not forget these innocent victims. We must continue to commemorate them.
In 2018, Rafid continued his mission to find photos and, with help of colleague Salma, he again found over 170 photos. Thanks to researchers such as Rafid, families and friends of deportees, volunteers, and institutes worldwide, the Give Them a Face portrait collection continues to grow in honor of the 25.846 deportees of who many lost their lives during the Holocaust. Thanks to the support of EHRI, as of 2018, Kazerne Dossin also made the portraits available via its portal website. And thus, the research continues. The search is never over.
Be sure to check out Kazerne Dossin on Facebook, Twitter (@Kazernedossin), and Instagram(@Kazernedossin) for more information!
Dorien Styven is a researcher at Kazerne Dossin – Memorial, Museum and Documentation Center on Holocaust and Human Rights since 2010. She obtained her master’s degree in contemporary history at KU Leuven in 2009 and is currently studying archival sciences at Vrije Universiteit Brussels. Dorien coordinates the development of Kazerne Dossin’s portal website and is the Give them a Face project leader. Her own research focuses on hidden children and hiding networks in Belgium.