(Washington, D.C., May 6, 2019)-- The B’nai B’rith World Center-Jerusalem honored the legacy of Jewish Holocaust-era rescuers in Belgium at two major events held on May 2nd - Holocaust Martyrs' and Heroes' Remembrance Day (Yom Hashoah). The events were dedicated to rescue efforts undertaken by members of the Jewish Defense Committee in Belgium (CDJ, for its initials in French).
The phenomenon of Jewish rescue and the instructive stories of thousands of Jews who labored to save their endangered brethren throughout Europe have yet to receive appropriate public recognition. Many who could have tried to flee preferred to stay and rescue others; some paid for it with their lives. With great heroism, Jews in every country in occupied Europe employed subterfuge, forgery, smuggling, concealment and other methods to ensure that Jews survived the Holocaust, or assisted other Jews in escaping to safe havens, and in doing so foiled the Nazi goal of total genocide against the Jews. The organizers of the ceremony view it as especially important to expose Jewish youth to these narratives as a model for Jewish solidarity and courage.
The first event was a unique joint Holocaust commemoration ceremony held for the 17th consecutive year together with Keren Kayemeth LeIsrael/Jewish National Fund - the only event dedicated annually to commemorating the heroism of Jews who rescued fellow Jews during the Holocaust. Held at B’nai B’rith Martyr’s Forest “Scroll of Fire” Plaza”, over 1,000 Jerusalem-area school pupils and pre-army preparatory academy students attended the ceremony together with Jewish rescuers, survivors and Border Patrol cadets.
Speakers at the ceremony were Mr. Danny Atar, world chairman, Jewish National Fund; Dr. Haim V. Katz, chairman of the B’nai B’rith World Center-Jerusalem; Brigadier General Yehuda Yehoshua, commander of the Border Guard Combat Training Center; H.E. Olivier Belle, ambassador of Belgium to Israel; and Michel Werber, son of CDJ founding members Abusz and Shifra Werber.
During the ceremony, a “Jewish Rescuers Citation” was conferred on 11 leading members of the CDJ - David Ferdman, Hertz Jospa, Hava Jospa, Abraham Manaster, Chaim Pinkus Perelman, Fela Perelman, David Trocki-Muscnicki, Paulina Avstritski, Josef Sterngold, Abusz Werber and Shifra Werber - and four other rescuers who were active in Poland - Shraga Dgani, Miriam-Mania Zeidman, Yaacov Segalchik and Bela Yaari-Hazan. A joint project of the B’nai B’rith World Center-Jerusalem and the Committee to Recognize the Heroism of Jewish Rescuers during the Holocaust, nearly 270 heroes have been honored with the citation since its establishment in 2011 for rescue activities in Germany, France, Hungary, Greece, Slovakia, Yugoslavia, Russia, Poland, Ukraine, Italy, Holland and Belgium.
The second event was an international conference entitled “Historical Perspectives on Jewish Rescue in Belgium During the Holocaust”. Held before an overflow crowd at the official residence of Ambassador Belle, speakers included B’nai B’rith World Center-Jerusalem Director Alan Schneider; Paul Jospa, son of CDJ leaders Hertz and Hava Jospa; B’nai B’rith Antwerp President Willy Kahan (who is married to the daughter of CDJ rescuer Josef Sterngold, Rachel); Olivia Mattis, granddaughter of CDJ founders Prof. Haim and Fela Perelman; and Alain Blitz, the son of a Belgian deportee to Auschwitz and an educator and author of the first Hebrew-language book on the Holocaust in Belgium. Lectures were presented by Dorien Styven, researcher and archivist at the Kazerne Dossin Museum of Deportation and Resistance in Mechelen, Belgium, on "Unlikely Allies - Diversity in the Ranks of the Jewish Defense Committee," and by Joel Kotek, professor at the Free University in Brussels and at Sciences Po University in Paris entitled, “Reception of the Holocaust and Jewish Resistance in Belgian Historiography”. Closing remarks were offered by David Inowlocki, honorary vice president, Belgian Association for Hidden Children. The conference was co-sponsored by the Committee to Recognize the Heroism of Jews who Rescued Fellow Jews during the Holocaust (JRJ); B’nai B’rith Joseph Wybran Lodge; OBI – Organization of Belgians in Israel (l'Asiociation des Originaries de la Belgique en Israel) and Amilies Israel Belgique Luxemburg – Tel Aviv.
Two Jewish Rescuers Citations – in memory of CDJ activists Leopold Flam and Israel Tabakman - were presented at the close of the conference.
Reports on the events were carried in the Jerusalem Post, Times of Israel, Swiss National Radio, Belgian National Radio, I24 news, Jwire, Israel Radio, JTA, KAN 11 Television – Israel Public Broadcasting Corporation and Maariv, among others.
The Jewish Defense Committee in Belgium was founded in September 1942 in reaction to the start of the deportation of Jews by the Gestapo in August 1942 in Brussels and Antwerp. The goal of the CDJ was to operate clandestinely to save as many Jews as possible. The CDJ united Jews from a broad ideological spectrum (including communists, revisionists, General Zionists and members of "Left Zion Workers” and "Zionist Youth") and from different swathes of society (among them Belgian citizens and foreigners, secular and religious Jews and even some non-Jews, such as the teacher Andree Geulen) to engage in joint rescue operations. The CDJ urged Jews to disregard the orders of the local Judenrat – the AJB - and go underground instead, and also endeavored to win the support of the general public for persecuted Jews. Some of the CDJ members held positions in the AJB and secretly passed on vital information to foil the German's nefarious plans.
The committee managed to rescue 3,000-4,000 Jewish children – half of all the Jewish children who survived the Holocaust in Belgium – and provided life-saving assistance to 10,000 adults, including hiding places and forged documents. This activity endangered the lives of the CDJ members; some of them were captured, tortured and deported to concentration camps. Some did not survive. The CDJ operated as an adjunct of the "Independence Front" – the most significant resistance organization, founded in Belgium in March 1941, that united 17 different ideological and religious groups lead by the Communist Party in response to the German invasion of the USSR. At the time of the German invasion of Belgium – May 10, 1940 – 66,000 Jews lived in the country, of whom only 10 percent were Belgian citizens; 34,801 were arrested during the Holocaust (among them 5,092 children under the age of 16); 28,902 were murdered – 44 percent of the entire Jewish population in Belgium; 24,906 were imprisoned - usually for several days – at the transfer camp Mechelen-Malines and deported from there on 28 transports to Auschwitz beginning in summer 1942. Only 1,337 survived the camps.
The number of CDJ members reached 300. It operated an impressive administrative network to handle finance, forged papers and food coupons, clandestine press and concealment of children and adults. The department for forged papers was so successful that it also provided papers for non-Jews trying to avoid forced labor. The principal feature of CDJ – cooperation between groups across the ideological and political spectrum - was the basis of an organization unique in Western Europe. The main chapter of the committee was in Brussels. Other chapters were in Charleroi and Liege. In Antwerp, the committee was founded in 1943, when three independent groups started to collaborate. 55 percent of Belgian Jews survived thanks to the swift response of individuals who went underground independently, to the heroic operation of members of the CDJ and to the support of the local Belgian society at large, including many clergy. It should be noted that Jews also operated outside the CDJ in various resistance organizations in smuggling, intelligence, sabotage and clandestine press. The unequivocal conclusion resulting from the events in Belgium during the war is that passivity of the Jews facing the horrors of the Holocaust is a myth.
The B'nai B'rith Martyr’s Forest is the largest joint B’nai B’rith and KKL-JNF project, which memorializes the victims of the Holocaust with 6 million trees planted in the picturesque Jerusalem mountains near Moshav Kesalon. At the pinnacle of the forest stands the “Scroll of Fire,” created by renowned sculptor Nathan Rapoport, which invokes the destruction.
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