ANTWERP, Belgian port and commercial center. Although a few Jews are mentioned in Antwerp before the 15th century, the first substantial community was established with the arrival of
merchants and others from the Iberian penninsula. On March 30, 1526,
V issued a general safe-conduct to the Portuguese "New Christians" in Antwerp, and numerous Marranos were enabled to settle there, and engage in business. The Marranos in Antwerp, however, were spared from the activities of the Inquisition, which had not been authorized in the southern Low Countries, although under Spanish rule. Nevertheless, the anomaly of Marrano existence under a Catholic prince remained, and they were suspected of aiding the Reformation agitation. Wealthy Marranos, such as the
family, used the Spanish Netherlands for transit to Muslim countries. These factors, combined with political and economic fluctuations, influenced the sovereigns to revise their attitude to the Marranos in the Spanish Netherlands several times. Toward the mid-16th century it was decided to expel from Antwerp all Marranos who had arrived there before 1543. Attempts by the municipality to avert the expulsion failed. The edict was renewed in 1550 and most of the Marranos were forced to leave, although a group of families continued to reside in Antwerp without rights of domicile. After the Peace of Westphalia (1648), Marranos were able to resettle in Antwerp, and even established a modest place of worship
there. For their religious needs, however, they mainly attached themselves to the community in
. Population figures for the "Portuguese nation" in Antwerp in this period indicate that 85 families and 17 individuals were living there in 1571, and 47 families and 20 widows in 1591; 46 names are mentioned in 1619, and 38 males and 27 females in 1666.
By the Treaty of Utrecht (1713), Antwerp passed under Austrian rule. The Jewish community was able to emerge from hiding, and certain privileged Jews of Ashkenazi origin obtained the right of residence in Antwerp. By the end of the 18th century civic rights had been granted to a number of individual Jews. After the occupation of the Low Countries by the French revolutionary forces in 1794, Jews were able to settle freely in Antwerp, and the Ashkenazi element eventually predominated. Antwerp was again attached to the Netherlands before becoming part of independent
in 1830. The first synagogue was built in 1808 and a cemetery established in 1828. There were 151 Jews in Antwerp in 1829, and 373 in Antwerp province in 1846.
After the beginning of the 20th century the Antwerp community enjoyed unprecedented prosperity through a combination of two chance circumstances: during the 1880s the port of Antwerp became the major embarkation point for the mass Jewish migration to America from Eastern Europe; at the same time there was a spectacular development in the
industry through the discovery of the South African mines. Many of the intending emigrants decided to settle in Antwerp and take up new skills as diamond cutters and polishers or dealers. The occupation became central to the community, and Jewish enterprise made Antwerp the capital of the industry in Europe. The Jewish population in Antwerp increased from 8,000 in 1900 to 25,000 in 1913, 35,000 in 1927, and 55,000 in 1939 (about 20% of the total population). In 1928 several thousand Jews were employed in the diamond industry, 25% of the total workers and 75% of employees in the industry being Jewish. The number of Jewish emigrants passing through Antwerp and afforded relief by the community was 2,300 in 1897, 7,478 in 1900, 19,448 in 1903, 24,479 in 1905, and 23,656 in 1920–21.
The Holocaust Period (1939–1945)
When the Germans invaded Belgium, there were about 50,000 Jews in Antwerp, only 10% of whom were Belgian citizens. Most of the Jews escaped to France at the start of hostilities. However, after the Belgian surrender (May 28, 1940), approximately 30,000 Jews returned to the city.
No special measures were taken against the Jews at the beginning of the occupation. The military authorities were more interested in keeping the country quiet, and in reviving the diamond industry, which had been almost entirely owned by Jews. According to the first anti-Jewish decrees, on Oct. 28, 1940, more than 13,000 Antwerp Jews were registered on the Judenregister, and Jewish businesses were marked with trilingual signboards. Further decrees forbade Antwerp Jews to leave their homes between 7 P.M. and 7 A.M., enter public parks, or dwell in places other than Brussels, Antwerp, Liège, and Charleroi. On April 14, 1941, Jewish shops were destroyed, two main synagogues looted, and Torah scrolls burnt in the streets by pro-German Flemings. The Gestapo carried out the first confiscation in the diamond bourse on August 18, 1941. According to the German census of October 1941, 17,242 Jews now remained in the city.
The final phase of Nazi persecution began with the introduction of the yellow-star
on May 27, 1942. On July 22, Jews traveling on trains between Antwerp and Brussels were arrested, sent to the transit camp at Mechelen, and then deported to the death camps. On Friday night, August 28, 1942, most of Antwerp's Jewish families were arrested in a sudden Aktion, and sent to the transit camp. Deportations, first to forced labor camps in France (mostly for the Todt organization) and then to Auschwitz, continued until September 4, 1943, when the remaining Jews (Belgian citizens and the protected Judenrat) were arrested. However, when the city was liberated a year later, some 800 Antwerp Jews emerged from hiding, where they had been supplied with food and other essentials by the organized Jewish resistance. HISO (Hulp aan Joodse Slachtoffers van de Oorlog – Help for Jewish War Victims) was at once organized to aid returned and displaced persons.
In 1969, the number of Jews was believed to be 10,500, many of whom were occupied in the diamond industry; almost 80% of the membership of the diamond exchange was Jewish. Several factors contributed to the unity of the Antwerp community. Antwerp Jews were not professionally nor residentially dispersed as were the Jews of Brussels, so that their concentration within certain parts of the city and within a limited number of professions had an impact on the religious and social life of the community. Most of the Jews of Antwerp were of Polish origin, oriented toward either orthodoxy or ultra-orthodoxy. These orientations were represented by the Shomre Hadass and Machsiké Hadass congregations, respectively. There were six small ḥasidic communities, with a joint membership of 11–12% of the total number of Jewish households. The Sephardi community had dwindled to a few dozen families maintaining their own synagogue. It was estimated that 90% of the children received a Jewish education, this percentage probably being one of the highest in Europe. The congregations controlled four day schools and a yeshivah, which together had 2,200 students. The two largest schools were Tachkemoni of the Shomre Hadass community and the Jesodé Hatora of the Machsiké Hadass community, both recognized and subsidized by the state. Their curricula conformed to official requirements, but they also provided Jewish studies, according to their religious orientation. The ḥasidic congregations also established day schools where a minimum amount of secular subjects were taught. A central fundraising
and welfare organization, Het Central Beheer van Joodse Weldadigheid en Maatschappelijk Hulpbetoon, provided medical, youth, social, and financial services for the benefit of the community and transients. In addition, the Forum oder Joodse Organisaties, founded in 1994, represented Flemish-speaking Jews before the authorities, and like the Coordinating Committee of Belgian Jewish Organizations it was represented in the Consistoire Centrale.
In the ensuing decades the Orthodox character of Antwerp's Jews was strengthened, with the city's Jewish population reaching a level of around 15,000 in 2002 while Belgium's Jewish population as a whole dropped to a little over 30,000. The two big Orthodox schools accommodated over 3,000 children and nearly 2,000 others attended Modern Orthodox, ḥasidic, and other schools. Around 30 synagogues were in operation. The majority of the city's Jews remained connected with the diamond industry, where Yiddish was still the dominant language, and the city's weekly Belgisch Israelitisch Weekblad was the country's biggest Jewish newspaper.
[Max Gottschalk /
S. Ullmann, Studien zur Geschichte der Juden in Belgien bis zum 18. Jahrhundert (1909); I.A. Goris, Etudes sur les colonies marchandes méridionales… à Anvers de 1488 à 1567 (1925); Revah, in: REJ, 123 (1963), 123–47; Gutwirth, ibid., 125 (1966)' 365–84; idem, in: JJS 10 (1968), 121–38; C. Roth, House of Nasi: Doña Gracia (1947), 21–49; E. Schmidt, Geschiedenis van de Joden in Antwerpen (1963; French, 1969), includes bibliography. ADD. BIBLIOGRAPHY: PK; AJYB (2003).
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