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CULTURE & HERITAGE - Culture & History

Kazerne Dossin: a new Holocaust museum in Belgium

Culture 130

Kazerne Dossin

On Wednesday 20 October 2010 a workshop took place at the CEGES-SOMA concerning 'Kazerne Dossin', a new Holocaust Museum, led by curator Herman Van Goethem, professor at the University of Antwerp and member of the scientific commission of CEGES-SOMA. Together with his scientific team, the architecture, design and historical concept of the museum were discussed and presented to about 50 academics. The project was presented to the press on Friday 22 October. The new museum is an initiative of the Flemish government and will be completed in 2012 in front of the old 'Dossinkazerne' in Mechelen.

Belgian collaboration in the persecution of the Jews during the period 1940-1944 will be a central aspect in a wider context of human rights and the education of remembrance.

The basic message of the 'Memorial, museum en documentatie centrum over Holocaust en Mensenrechten' is twofold. One the one hand there is the Belgian case and the complicity of Belgium in the persecution of the Jews from 1940 to 1944. On the other hand is the place of the individual and significance of the masses in an historical perspective. By leaving the historical framework, attention is paid to the collective derailment of society and the place of an individual in this crowd. A mass helped by a specific context, like a government, can cause a shift of moral and political power.

In the exhibition, the phenomenon of the masses is approached from three points of view: The offenders, the victims and the helpers. In this way an in-depth analysis takes shape, which tries to show the grey zone between help and collaboration. Thus, the exhibition does not limit itself to a black or white approach. By presenting the grey zone, everyone takes responsibility. Therefore, we create the possibility for the visitor to freely answer the question: 'what would you do?'

The following Belgian case reveals the acceptance and complicity by the Belgian authorities of the totalitarian message of Nazi Germany. During the period from 1940 to 1944, the Belgian authorities legally discriminated against the Jewish population and helped organize the deportation of 25,835 Jews. In January 1942, the government used the totalitarian context to take far-reaching initiatives against the Romani ('Gypsy') population. An example of this is the deportation of 351 Roma.

Starting from a broader historical perspective, the visitor is confronted with himself and current events. The actualization and instrumentalization of discrimination nowadays is one of the main concerns of the new museum. Non-discrimination, a legal term, is the fundamental idea of the new Holocaust Museum. The notions of 'educational memory' and 'human rights' are derived from this idea. In the parliament, the Flemish government already gave substance to the notion 'human rights': notably 'racism' and 'exclusion'. The modern point of view embraces a personal dimension by taking account of discrimination on the micro level, like bullying.

The building of the new museum turned the old 'Dossinkazerne' into a memorial. These 18th century-barracks, situated between Antwerp and Brussels, were a gathering place from where the Jews and Roma were deported towards Auschwitz-Birkenau. The memorial, as a 'lieu de mémoire', is material evidence of the deportation. The memorial site is incorporated in a bigger structure that consists of a square connecting the memorial, the new museum and the green area 'het park van de mensen rechten' ('the park of human rights').

The role of Belgium during the persecution of the Jews in the Second World War is placed into another perspective by the 'Memorial, museum in documentation Centrum over Holocaust en Mensenrechten' ('Memorial, museum and documentation centre for the Holocaust and human rights') which incorporates the memorial and the new museum. The mere enumeration of historical facts is transcended by being linked to present-day and broader themes: human rights with the exclusion of racism as the core concerns. This is to be achieved by the principle of non-discrimination and the sensitizing of the visitor by self-reflection.

Maarten Demey