Between ’Aryanization’ and Deportation.
Survival Strategies of the Jewish Community in Occupied Belgium during
World War II
Our project aims to further examine the correlation between the economic persecution of Jews (‘Aryanization’) and the Holocaust in Western Europe. Although the subjects of spoliation and restitution have been broadly researched in the last decades, there are as yet no historical studies on two central questions:
- What survival strategies did the Jews develop, having been deprived of their livelihoods?
- Did the destruction of their means of existence increase the risk of being deported to Auschwitz?
Our research concentrates on the situation in occupied Belgium. We will thereby also follow up on our long-term previous work on the Holocaust in Western Europe.
The German military administration in Belgium only partly enforced the expropriation of ‘Jewish’ wealth. But it consequently aimed at excluding Jews from the Belgian economy. The vast majority of Jews living in Belgium were immigrants, mostly coming from Eastern Europe after World War I. They had built up an economy predominantly based on small family businesses. This economy was destroyed by the occupying power. In the spring of 1942, more than 80 % of the overall 7.700 registered Jewish companies had been shut down. The liquidization concentrated on the textile, leather and fur sectors as well as on diamonds. This kind of ‘Aryanization’ was characterised above all by its devastating effect on the lower social classes. It deprived at least one third of the Jewish community of its livelihoods.
The liquidization of Jewish companies was closely correlated to the deportation to Auschwitz. 42 % of the Jews registered in Belgium fell victim to the Holocaust. Were the Jews facing forced liquidization in particular danger? How did the former owners and employees of companies as well as their families react to the ruination of their economic existence? How did they make their living? Did they get arrested and deported because they lacked the financial means to escape into the underground? Or did the survival of the Jews not depend on material means?
The project is primarily based on newly inventoried files in the State Archives in Belgium, which have not yet been considered by research. These are files from the former Brüsseler Treuhandgesellschaft (BTG), which was operated by the German military administration in Belgium and which played a key role in the ‘Aryanization’. The analysis of these records promises to considerably widen our knowledge of both the economic and social history of the Jewish community in Belgium as well as of the economic aspects of the persecution of the Jews.