The tragic summer of 1942: For the first time, train transports left from the Dossin barracks to Auschwitz-Birkenau. Via Mechelen, 25,484 Jews and 352 gypsies were deported from Belgium and Northern France. Just over 5% would return. The theme on this floor is appropriately ‘death’.
The long corridor ends at a large picture of Auschwitz-Birkenau. You follow the evolution of the planned extermination of the Jews in East-Europe. Two picture albums are placed opposite of each other: On one side the ‘Lili Jacob album’ of the arrival of a train with Hungarian Jews in Auschwitz in May 1944, including well-known images of the arrival, selection and waiting near the gas chambers. On the other side, the intriguing and shocking ‘Höcker album’ with pictures taken in the summer of 1944 of SS camp personnel of Auschwitz-Birkenau during moments of relaxation and free time: a laughing and singing group of people, relaxing in comfortable chairs, on excursions, happy together at the table, solemn under the Christmas tree. Among the pictures is one of that charming, nice-looking and laughing man: Josef Mengele – the angel of death.
The Nazis made the Jews into an archenemies; it is ‘them’ or ‘us’. Women and children also had to be exterminated to prevent that a next generation would take revenge. These new moral codes went hand-in-hand with dehumanising the Jews and with a habituation to ever increasing violence. Therefore, SS personnel are not portrayed as devils, deranged people but are ‘normal persons’, although with a completely different moral standards. Just like the Hutus who considered it ‘good’ to massacre the Tutsis, just like the Red Khmers who considered it ‘good’ to kill certain groups of the population. Ideology is the basis of every community.
Let’s return to occupied Belgium. In 1942-1944, at least 15,000 Jews lived in hiding. They were able to rely on the assistance of a tremendous number of people. There is also organised and armed resistance, which took off in the summer and fall of 1942 and counted many Jews among its ranks.
The museum also deals extensively with the processing of the post-war trauma. Although the central theme of this third floor is ‘death’, just as important is the question how life is possible afterwards for the persecuted people that were lucky to survive the war.