It seemed fitting, on the 70th anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz, to visit the Jewish Museum of Belgium. Not quite a year ago, this museum was itself the site of an anti-Semitic terrorist attack.
I couldn't help thinking that the victims - an elderly volunteer, the receptionist, and a couple visiting the museum - were like the people there to welcome me to the museum. A quieter, more peaceful place would be harder to imagine. Only the Belgian soldiers at the entrance hint at the ongoing need to protect the museum.
Dedicated to recounting the long history of the Jewish presence in Belgium (the timeline on the wall starts in the Middle Ages), the museum provides illustrations of daily life of Jews over the centuries. Their religious beliefs, related feast days, the economic life of the community.
An exhibit on Jewish bookbinders and other craftsmen leads to a small room on the impact of the Shoah in Belgium. A poster announcing, just months after the fall of Belgium and France in May/June 1940, the requirement for Jews to register "by order of the military authorities." The announcement is in French, and there's no need to mention whose order it is.
The displays include the usual documentation of the bureaucracy of extermination - ID cards marked "Juif," ugly antisemitic posters preparing the way for the roundup of Jews - but also heroic stories of Belgians who successfully hid Jewish children during four years of Nazi occupation. And the stirring account of the Nazi train to Auschwitz where resistance fighters freed Jewish captives.
There's a reminder that "Palestinian" was once a synonym for Jews: a letter from the "Office Palestinien en Suisse," a branch of the Jewish Agency in Switzerland, helping Jews find refuge in British Mandate Palestine from the horrors in Europe.
Elsewhere, a photo from a previous German occupation, that of the First World War. German soldiers (!) celebrating Yom Kippur in Brussels, 1915. A reminder that German Jews fought loyally in the German army, a fact which meant nothing to the Nazis a generation later.
And yet another occupation, the "Spanish Netherlands" period of the late 16th to early 18th century. Jewish "marrano" refugees from the Spanish Inquisition had found refuge in Belgium, and the museum displays a book of the period by a captain in the Spanish army, himself a secret Jew.
The Jewish Museum of Belgium is a low-tech, traditional museum. It is light years away from the sophistication of, say, the Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington. But because it was the target of terrorism, and because Jews and Jewish institutions in Europe need the support of their host countries at this tense time, it should itself become a place of pilgrimage.