Very little is known about Belgian Jews in the early medieval era, but as in other European countries, they were severely repressed during the later medieval era. During this period Belgian Jews were expelled or killed. Gradually Jews began returing to Belgium as the country entered the modern era. Antwerp became a center in northern Europe for the Renaissance and thriving economic activity that transformned Medieval Europe. Jews played a major role in this transition. Belgium had a much smaller Jewish population than the neighboring Netherlands, because the Spanish had supressed the Protestant revolt in the 16th century and expelled the Jews again. The legal situation of Jews began to change with the French Revolution and Belgian Jews were subsequently emancipated.While the country had only a small Jewish population, quite a number of German and other European Jews in the years before the World war II sought refuge in Belgium.
Archeological evidence shows that many mostly small kingdoms rose and fell over time in the area between the two great centers of civilization, Mesopotamia and Egypt. While these peoples are mostly of only minor importance in the great swwp of history. One of these people, however, the Hebrews have come to play a majo shrouded in the mist of pre-history. Scholars associate it with the word "Hiberu". It first appears in writing sent to Egypt from one of the small client states which the Egyptians left after withdrawing from Canaan in the 1300s BC. These client states faced wves of nomadic tribes. The Egupian word "Hiberu" meant "outsider" and originally was probably used to describe migrants in general and not one specific people. The early Hebrews apparently were semi-nomadic heardsmen who gradually began some limited farming They did not have metal tools or a written language. Like other nomads, the ancient Hebrews lived in tents and were organized in extended families combined into kinship groups. [Smitha] Biblical scholarship has developed extensive information on the Hebrew people who for a tome were captives in both Egypt and Babylonia.
Until the Babylonian Captivity, Jews lived almost entirely within Palestine or neighboring Egypt (597-538 BC). Babylon was conquered by Persian Emperor Cyrus the Great who allowed the Jews to return to Palestine. It also made possible the movement of Jew within the huge Persian Empire. The Jews were ruled by the Persians until Alexander's conquest of the Persian Empire. Jews were futher scattered which the Roman supression of the Jewish Revolt (70 AD). Roman control of Western Europe allowed Jews to move freely into countries like France, Greece, Italy, Portugal, and Spain.
The first Jews arrived in what is today Belgium after the Roman conquest of Gaul under Ceasar (53-57 BC). This is the case for Jewish communities throughout Europe. The Roman suppresion of Jews in Palestine caused the Dispora which dispersed Jews throughout the Empire. Little is known about the Jewish community in Belgium during the Roman Empire.
Nothing is know about Jews in Belgium during the Dark Ages. It is clear, however, that during this era a thriving Jewsish community developed in Belgium. Actual written records only date from the 13th century. There are records of Jews in Brabant province in the early 13th century. Tombstones and street names such as "rue des Juifs" provide furtherevidence of the Jewwish life in the mid-13th century. There is also evidence of anti-Jewish measures. Duke Henry III ordered that all Jews and usurers be expelled from Brabant (1261). Nobels often borrowed money from Jews. Expulsion and other actions was a way of avoiding repayment. This was the case throughout Europe in part because Catholic cannon condemned ususry, charging interest for loans. Noted Catholic theologian Thomas Aquinas proposed the taxation of Jews and forcing them into manual labor so they could not become wealthy. Overall this seems to have had little impact on Belgian Jews. The Crusades, however, had a devestating impact on Jews throughout Europe. European Jews were the first target of the Crusders. Crusaders butchered Belgian Jews who refused to convert to Christianity (1309). Duke John II brought the surviving Jews under his protection and the much reduced community had a rabbai (1311). The community grew with the arrival of Jews expelled from France. Jews like others in Belgian were devestated by the Plague or Black Death as it was called (1348-49). The Plague devestated Europe, but for Jews it was much worse. Not only were Jews heavily concentrated in cities, which were more affected than rural areas, but the population as a whole often blamed the Jews for the scourge of the Plague. Many Jews were killed in mass by both authorities and local mobs. Only a very few Jewish families survived. Almost all of the Jews were subsequently killed. They were accused of desecrating the Host (the Communon wafers used in the Mass) and burned at the stake (1370). We do not have details, but believe this included men, women, and children.
Jews did not return to Belgium until the 16th century. Most Jews came as a result of the explusion of Jews from Spain by Ferdinand and Isabella (1492) and a similar expulsion from Portugal. The Spanish Inquisition made it difficult for Conversos in Spain to fein conversion. These exiles are known as Sephardic Jews. They were received as "New Christians", but many secretly practiced Judaism at home. Many settled in Antwerp. Some were skilled diamond cutters and it is from this time that Antwerp emerges as a major center in the diamond trade. Antwerp became a center in northern Europe for the Renaissance and thriving economic activity that transformned Medieval Europe. Jews played a major role in this transition. Jews were still not allowed to openly practice their religion openly, but a secret synagogue conducted services in Antwerp (1650-94). Spanish control of Belgium further complicated Jewish life in the late 16th and 17th centurie. Austrian rule in Belgium followed the Treaty of Utrecht (1713) ending the the War of the Spanish Sccession. Austrain rule mean a more enlightened approach even attracting Ashkenazi (Eastern Ruropean) Jews. There was still not full toleration. Jews were still still required to pay special taxes. The situation changed with the French Revolution. Revolutionary forces seized Belgium (1794) and French control continued until Napoleon;'s defeat an exile to Elba (1814). Napoleon's final battle was fought after his return at Waterloo in Belgium (1815). The Congress of Vienna combined Belgian and the Netherlands under a Dutch monarcy (1814-30). Both French and Dutch rule brought greater freedom. Belgium became an indepent monarchy (1831). Belgium had two destinct Jewish communities. Brussels had a largely French influenced Jewish community with a relatively high rate of assimilation. Antwerp had a a Jewish community more influenced by Yiddish and Flemish tradition. Antwerp Jews were less assimilated and more traditional forms of Judiasm were prevalent. Belgium's Jewish population expnded significantly after 1880 when pogroms in Russia and Poland drove many Eastern European Jews west. This was the same events which drove Eastern European Jews to America.
Germany launched World War I by invading Belgium in an effort to comquer France. The valliant resistance of the Belgian Army under King Albert I slowed the German advance making possible the Mirravle on the Marne that saved France. Germany nonrtheless occupied almost all of Belgium and held Belgium until the last weeks of the War when Allied offensives forced the Germany Army began a general retreat in at the end of the War. Jews at the time were fully enancipated in Germany and no actions were taken against Belgian Jews. The German Army seized food supplies. Had in not been for a humanitarin relief effort organized by the United States, large numbers of Belgian civilians would have starved.
There were about 90,000-100,000 Jews in Belgium at the time World War II broken out in Europe. THere are no precise accounts because Government officials did not conduct a Census by religious affiliation. In additioinal many Jews were assimilated complicating any account. There were also illegal alliens fleeing NAZI persecution. Jews had immigrated from Germany size the NAZIs seized power (1933). The Anschluss in Austria brough a new wave of refugees (1938). It is believed that half or more were foreign Jews. The two largest communities were in Antwerp (55,000) and Brussels (35,000). There were several smaller communities in Ghent, Liege, Arlon, Charleroi, Mons, Namur, and and Oostende. The Jewish population had been significantly increased by repressive German laws and extra-legal violence designed to drive Jews out of Germany. There were an estimated 20,000 German refugees and many thousands of others attempting to get visas to emmigtate to the United States and other countries. During the first months of the occupation, thousands of Jews, especially foreign Jews, fled from Belgium or were deported to neighboring France. As a result, as of late 1940 about 52,000-55,000 Jews remained in Belgium. [Hilberg, p. 601]
There were about 90,000-100,000 Jews in Belgium at the time World War II broken out in Europe, many were foreign Jews that had already fled the NAZIS from their own countries. During the first months of the occupation, thousands of Jews, especially foreign Jews, fled from Belgium or were deported to neighboring France. As a result, as of late 1940 about 52,000-55,000 Jews remained in Belgium. Hitler apparently had no marked plans for Belgium in the NAZI "New Order" in Europe. This thus had a marked effect on the administration that the Germans established in Belgium. NAZI suppression of Jews in Belgium followed a familar pattern. The NAZIs issued the first anti-Jewish measures in the Fall 1940. These measures suceeded in robbing Belgian Jews of their property. Inpoverished and concentrated it cities, they were now ready for the next step, transport east and the death camps. The killing of Dutch, Belgian, and French Jews began in July 1942 when the Polish death camps became fully operational. Most accounts suggest that the NAZI anti-Semetic campaign which began soon after the occupation had little impact on most Belgians. It was virtually impossible to contront the NAZIs openly. Many Belgians, however, quierly and effectively opposed the NAZIs quiettly and effectively. One author explain that it was these "slent rebels" that saved many Belgian Jews. Belgian clerics were some of the most effective in Europe in helping to rescue the country's Jewish population. The most notable cleric was Father Bruno who saved hundreds of children. There was only so much the Resistance could do in Belgium. Unlike Denmark there was no easy to get to sanctuary. The English Channel and North Sea is difficult waters. mined, and heavily patrolled by the Germans. The NAZIs succeeded in killing about 25,000 Jews who were living in Belgium. Here accounts vary. Some are as high as 40,000. Only 1,271 survived and retuned after the War. Despite the appaling total, the number of Jews saved is a testimony to the support of the Belgian people to their non-Jewish countrymen.
Hilberg, Raul. The Destruction of the European Jews (1985).
Navigate the Boys' Historical Clothing Web Site:
[Return to the Main Jewish Diaspora pages]
[Return to the Main Jewish pages]
[Return to the Main Belgian page]
[Introduction] [Activities] [Biographies] [Chronology] [Clothing styles] [Countries]
[Bibliographies] [Contributions] [FAQs] [Glossaries] [Images] [Links] [Registration] [Tools]
[Boys' Clothing Home]