1912

 

AFTER YEARS OF PROCEDURES, MARKED BY DELAYS AND REFUSALS, THE SEPHARDIC COMMUNITY RECEIVED THEIR LONG AWAITED PERMISSION TO BUILD A SYNAGOGUE.

 1918

 

AFTER THE WAR, JEWS FROM ALL OVER RETURNED TO THEIR ORIGINAL COMMUNITIES. ANTWERP'S JEWS RESUMED THEIR DAILY LIFE.

star-of-david.png
star-of-david.png
star-of-david.png
star-of-david.png

 

WWI HAS IMPACTED THE DEVELOPMENT OF THE COMMUNITY. MANY JEWS, HOPING TO RETURN IN BETTER TIMES LEFT THE CITY IN SEARCH FOR A BETTER PLACE.

 1914

 

SOON AFTER THE OCCUPATION BY THE NAZIS SIR. FECHLER, WHO WAS THE PRESIDENT OF THE COMMUNITY AT THE TIME, JOINED, AND BECAME AN ACTIVE MEMBER OF THE RESISTANCE. HE MANAGED TO SAVE SEVERAL FAMILIES. YET THE MAJORITY OF PORTUGUESE JEWS OF THE COMMUNITY DID NOT SURVIVE THE SHOAH.

 1940

THE HISTORY OF THE

BETH MOSHE SYNAGOGUE

A Century of Ups, Downs and the Jewish Spirit

1961 MARKED THE REBIRTH OF THE GOLDEN TIMES FOR THE COMMUNITY. THANKS TO THE EMIGRATION OF JEWS FROM THE SOVIET UNION, ESPECIALLY JEWISH BUSINESSMEN FROM RUSSIA AND GEORGIA, WHO CHOSE TO STAY IN ANTWERP AFTER WHICH THEY HAVE FOUND THEIR PLACE WITHIN THE PORTUGUESE SEPHARDIC COMMUNITY REACHING AN HISTORICAL RECORD OF AROUND 300 FAMILIES.

 
 

 

THE CITY OF ANTWERP ATTRACTED MANY IMMIGRANTS, INCLUDING TURKISH JEWS SEEKING ESCAPE FROM THE FORCED CONSCRIPTION OF YOUNG MEN IN THE TURKISH ARMY, WHERE THEY HAD TO SERVE IN LABOR CAMPS. THE JEWS WHO DEALT IN THE DIAMOND TRADE SAW THE PORT CITY OF ANTWERP AS THE IDEAL PLACE TO LIVE.

THE NEW ARRIVALS CONDUCTED PRAYER SERVICES IN PRIVATE HOMES AND PROVIDED COMMUNITY SERVICES THROUGH A PRIVATE ORGANIZATION UNTIL THEY WERE RECOGNIZED AS AN OFFICIAL KEHILLAH BY THE BELGIAN GOVERNMENT AND RECEIVED A PERMIT TO BUILD THEIR OWN SYNAGOGUE.

THE FOUNDATIONS

THE FOUNDATIONS OF ANTWERP’S SEPHARDIC-PORTUGUESE KEHILLAH ARE DEEPLY ROOTED IN JEWISH HISTORY, DATING BACK TO THE EXPULSION FROM SPAIN. THE EXPULSION DECREES BEGAN IN 1492 WHEN KING FERDINAND II OF ARAGON AND HIS WIFE, QUEEN ISABELLA I OF CASTILE, SIGNED A ROYAL EDICT THAT ANY JEW WHO REFUSED TO CONVERT TO CATHOLICISM MUST LEAVE THEIR KINGDOM.

 

AT FIRST, THE EXPELLED JEWS FOUND REFUGE IN THE NEIGHBORING LAND OF PORTUGAL. BUT SPAIN’S CATHOLIC RULERS DIDN’T WANT PORTUGAL TO SERVE AS A SAFE SHELTER FOR INQUISITION REFUGEES. IN 1497, WHEN FERDINAND AND ISABELLA’S DAUGHTER, PRINCESS ISABELLA OF ASTURIAS, BECAME ENGAGED TO MANUEL I OF PORTUGAL, IT WAS ON CONDITION THAT THE EXPULSION DECREE IS IMPOSED ON THE JEWS OF PORTUGAL AS WELL. UPON HIS MARRIAGE TO THE YOUNGER ISABELLA, KING MANUEL OF PORTUGAL ORDERED A COLLECTIVE FORCED CONVERSION CEREMONY ON ALL THE JEWS OF HIS COUNTRY, INCLUDING THOSE WHO HAD FLED FROM SPAIN.

ONE YEAR LATER, THE KINGDOM OF NAVARRA, IN THE NORTHERN REGION OF THE IBERIAN PENINSULA, ALSO EXPELLED ITS JEWS FROM ITS BORDERS. IN ACCORDANCE WITH A PAPAL BULL ISSUED IN 1487 BY POPE INNOCENT VIII, THE SPANISH INQUISITION HAD DEMANDED THE EXTRADITION OF ALL THE ANUSIM WHO HAD FLED TO PORTUGAL, BUT PORTUGAL WAS RELUCTANT TO COOPERATE WITH SPAIN TO THAT EXTENT. IF THE INQUISITION WANTED TO PUT AN ESCAPED “MARANNO” ON TRIAL, IT WOULD HAVE TO DO SO BY ITS OWN EFFORTS.

BUT IN 1530, A PORTUGUESE INQUISITION WAS ESTABLISHED, AND THE PORTUGUESE JEWS FELT THE CRUEL VICE OF THE INQUISITION TIGHTEN AROUND THEM. AGAIN, THEY STARTED LOOKING FOR SHELTER ELSEWHERE. MOST SPANISH AND PORTUGUESE JEWS SET THEIR SIGHTS ON ENGLAND OR HOLLAND, WHERE JEWS COULD LIVE IN RELATIVE PEACE. MANY OTHERS CHOSE TURKEY, WHERE JEWS WERE LIVING COMFORTABLY. FROM THERE, MANY OF THEM MADE THEIR WAY TO ERETZ ISRAEL, THEN UNDER OTTOMAN RULE.

 

THE EXILES

THE EXILES FROM SPAIN AND PORTUGAL WHO HAD SETTLED IN TURKEY ENCOUNTERED A NEW PROBLEM; THE TURKISH MILITARY IMPOSED UNIVERSAL CONSCRIPTION AND YOUNG JEWS WERE BEING DRAFTED INTO THE ARMY ALONG WITH THE TURKISH YOUTH. FURTHERMORE, THE AUTHORITIES DECIDED THAT THE JEWS WERE NOT FIT FOR COMBAT DUTY, AND THEY WERE PUT TO WORK BUILDING FORTIFICATIONS INSTEAD. IT WAS VERY HARD LABOUR, AND SOME OF THE JEWISH YOUTHS WERE SENT TO MILITARY CAMPS IN FAR-OFF ASIA.

 

READY TO DO ANYTHING TO SAVE THEIR SONS FROM THIS FATE, MANY JEWS CHOSE TO EMIGRATE TO ANTWERP. KNOWN AS ANTWERPEN IN FLEMISH AND ANVERS IN FRENCH, ANTWERP IS THE SECOND-LARGEST CITY IN BELGIUM AND THE LARGEST IN FLANDERS, THE FLEMISH-SPEAKING REGION OF THE COUNTRY. SITUATED NEAR BELGIUM’S BORDER WITH THE NETHERLANDS, ON THE BANKS OF THE RIVER SCHELDE WHERE THE RIVER FLOWS INTO THE NORTH SEA, ANTWERP BOASTS THE SECOND-LARGEST PORT IN EUROPE, SECOND ONLY TO ROTTERDAM.

THERE ARE TWO THEORIES REGARDING THE ORIGIN OF THE CITY’S NAME. ACCORDING TO THE FIRST THEORY, THE NAME ANTWERPEN IS DERIVED FROM THE FLEMISH AAN HET WERF (ALONG THE WHARF). OTHERS CLAIM THAT IT ORIGINATES FROM THE LEGEND OF SILVIUS BRABO, A ROMAN CITIZEN WHO CUT OFF THE HAND OF THE GIANT DRUON ANTIGOON, WHO WAS TERRORIZING THE CITY, AND THREW IT INTO THE RIVER. “ANTWERPEN,” ACCORDING TO THIS THEORY, IS DERIVED FROM HAND WERPEN (HAND THROWING). A STATUE OF BRABO, POISED TO CAST AWAY THE SEVERED HAND, DOMINATES THE CITY’S CENTRAL SQUARE, AND THE GIANT’S HAND APPEARS IN THE CITY’S COAT OF ARMS.

 

THE DEVELOPING CITY OF ANTWERP ATTRACTED MANY IMMIGRANTS, AMONG THEM THE JEWS OF TURKEY. TURKISH JEWS WERE KNOWN AS MERCHANTS DEALING IN TEXTILES, GEMS, AND DIAMONDS, AND THE MARKET FOR THESE COMMODITIES WAS GROWING IN ANTWERP. JEWISH FAMILIES FROM TURKEY BEGAN STREAMING INTO THIS FOREIGN EUROPEAN CITY. STRANGERS TO ITS LANGUAGE, CULTURE, AND CUSTOMS, THEY HAD TO FIND THEIR BEARINGS THERE. THE FIRST JEWISH ARRIVALS FROM TURKEY AND SALONICA JOINED TOGETHER AS A KEHILLAH UNDER THE NAME SOCIETE ISRAELITE DU RITE PORTUGAIS (JEWISH COMMUNITY OF THE PORTUGUESE RITE). THEY HELD PRAYER SERVICES AT 56 VESTINSTRAAT AND FORMED AN UMBRELLA ORGANIZATION CALLED THE OTTOMAN CLUB, WHICH HELPED NEW ARRIVALS FIND HOUSING AND WORK.

 

EARLY SEPHARDIC ESTABLISHING

AFTER FULFILLING THESE BASIC SURVIVAL NEEDS, THE JEWS STILL HAD TO FIND SOLUTIONS FOR THEIR RELIGIOUS NEEDS SUCH AS A SYNAGOGUE AND EDUCATION FOR THEIR CHILDREN. THEY WEREN'T USED TO THE NUSACH OF THE ASHKENAZI JEWS OF BELGIUM OR THEIR PRONUNCIATION OF HEBREW AND THEY HAD NO SYNAGOGUES OF THEIR OWN. AS A TEMPORARY SOLUTION, THEY GATHERED IN PRIVATE HOMES FOR PRAYER SERVICES, WHICH WERE CONDUCTED PARTLY IN HEBREW AND PARTLY IN LADINO.

 

IN JULY, 1903, THE KEHILLAH OF TURKISH JEWS, ACCLIMATED BY NOW TO THEIR NEW SURROUNDINGS, SUBMITTED AN OFFICIAL REQUEST TO THE CITY’S JUDICIAL AUTHORITIES, WHOSE POWER EXTENDED TO RELIGIOUS INSTITUTIONS AS WELL, ASKING TO BE RECOGNIZED AS A SPANISH-PORTUGUESE JEWISH COMMUNITY. THEY IDENTIFIED THEMSELVES THIS WAY SINCE THEY HAD CLUNG TO THEIR PORTUGUESE ROOTS AND PRESERVED THEIR ANCESTRAL NUSACH TEFILLAH.

 

THEY HAVE ALSO SUBMITTED AN APPLICATION FOR A PERMIT TO BUILD A SYNAGOGUE AND HOUSE OF STUDY, EMPHASIZING THEIR NEED FOR RELIGIOUS INSTITUTIONS OF THEIR OWN, SINCE THEY PRACTICED A DIFFERENT RITE FROM THAT OF THE JEWS OF BERLIN, THE LOCALLY ESTABLISHED RITE. IN 1904, THE SEPHARDIC COMMUNITY OF ANTWERP NUMBERED ABOUT 200 FAMILIES. AGAIN, THE KEHILLAH SUBMITTED A REQUEST TO THE JUDICIAL AUTHORITIES, ASKING TO BE RECOGNIZED AS A SEPARATE JEWISH COMMUNITY. REPEATEDLY, THEIR APPLICATIONS WERE TURNED DOWN.

 

ON FEBRUARY 7, 1910, THE COMMUNITY’S BOARD OF DIRECTORS TURNED TO THE KING OF BELGIUM, ALBERT I, WITH A PETITION FOR A PERMIT TO ERECT A BUILDING THAT WOULD SERVE AS A HOUSE OF PRAYER AND STUDY. PERMISSION WAS NOT GRANTED, DUE TO A DRACONIAN LAW LIMITING THE NUMBER OF PUBLIC BUILDINGS ALLOWED IN THE CITY. AS A LAST RESORT, THEY SENT A LOBBYIST TO TRY AND INFLUENCE THE MINISTER OF JUSTICE TO REPEAL THE LAW, WHICH HAD BEEN ENACTED BY THE KING’S FATHER, LEOPOLD II,

 

ON MARCH 4, 1870. ON FEBRUARY 15, 1912, THE CITY COUNCIL OF ANTWERP CONVENED, AT THE INSISTENCE OF KING ALBERT, TO VOTE ON THE QUESTION OF GRANTING A BUILDING PERMIT FOR A SYNAGOGUE AND HOUSE OF STUDY TO THE PORTUGUESE-RITE JEWISH KEHILLAH. SEVENTEEN MEMBERS VOTED IN FAVOR, SIXTEEN VOTED AGAINST, AND TWO ABSTAINED. BY THIS NARROW MARGIN, THE MEASURE PASSED. THE PORTUGUESE-RITE JEWISH KEHILLAH COULD HAVE ITS SYNAGOGUE. THE SEPHARDIC JEWS OF BELGIUM WERE ECSTATIC WHEN THE ROYAL EDICT ORDERING IMMEDIATE RECOGNITION OF THEIR KEHILLAH WAS SIGNED. IT WAS THE ROYAL STAMP OF APPROVAL ON A KEHILLAH THAT WAS ALREADY WELL ESTABLISHED, WITH RELIGIOUS AND SOCIAL SERVICES PROVIDED THROUGH THE OTTOMAN CLUB, UNDER THE LEADERSHIP OF RABBI GAVRIEL MIZRACHI.   

 

THE BUILDING OF A SYNAGOGUE

AS SOON AS A BUILDING PERMIT WAS GRANTED BY THE AUTHORITIES, THE JEWS HIRED AN ARCHITECT AND CONSTRUCTION OF THE BEIT KNESSET COMMENCED. THE KEHILLAH MEMBERS WERE WELL-OFF AND DID NOT HAVE TO RELY ON THE GOODWILL OF PHILANTHROPISTS TO FUND THE PROJECT. THEY GENEROUSLY DONATED FUNDS TO BUILD A MAGNIFICENT BUILDING, AS BEFITS A HOME FOR THE SHECHINAH. THEY FINANCED THE MOST SUPERIOR BUILDING MATERIALS, DELUXE MOSAIC FLOORING, AND FURNITURE CRAFTED BY THE BEST CARPENTERS. AT THE BEIT KNESSET’S INAUGURATION, ALL OF ANTWERP’S JEWS WERE IN ATTENDANCE.

 

TWO YEARS BEFORE PERMISSION WAS GRANTED, ON 15 FEBRUARY 1910, CHAIM ABULEFIA, YITZCHAK GALMIDI, ALBERT MIZRACHI AND NISIM MIZRACHI, THE DRIVING FORCES BEHIND THE CONSTRUCTION PROJECT, DONATED A 225 SQ. METER PLOT OF LAND ON WHICH TO BUILD A BEIT KNESSET FOR THE SEPHARDIC-PORTUGUESE KEHILLAH. THE KEHILLAH WAS COMPRISED OF MOSTLY WEALTHY BUSINESSMEN SO THERE WAS NO NEED TO SOLICIT DONATIONS FROM PEOPLE OUTSIDE THEIR COMMUNITY FOR THE PROJECT.

 

ON 28 MAY 1912 THE WEALTHY MEMBERS OF THE KEHILLAH CONVENED FOR A MEETING. AT THE MEETING A FUND WAS ESTABLISHED FOR THE CONSTRUCTION OF A BEIT KNESSET. THE PARTICIPANTS WERE ANXIOUS TO EMBARK ON THE EXCITING PROJECT AND A BUILDING COMMITTEE WAS SWIFTLY ESTABLISHED FOR THE PROJECT TO BE SET IN MOTION.

 

FIRST STEPS

THE FIRST STEP WAS TO APPOINT AN ARCHITECT. AFTER CAREFUL DELIBERATION AND VIEWING OF SAMPLES AND PORTFOLIOS, JOSEF DE LANGHE, A YOUNG, TALENTED JEW WAS CHOSEN FOR THE JOB. WITH MUCH ANTICIPATION, THE JEWS OF ANTWERP FOLLOWED THE PROGRESS OF THE CONSTRUCTION OF THE BEIT KNESSET BUILDING, SAID TO BECOME ONE OF THE FINEST BUILDINGS IN A CITY KNOWN FOR ITS BEAUTIFUL ARCHITECTURE. THE WEALTHY MEMBERS OF THE KEHILLAH SPARED NO EXPENSE; THE MOST SUPERIOR BUILDING MATERIALS WERE BOUGHT, AND THE MOST SKILLED WORKERS AND ARTISANS HIRED. THE KEHILLAH LEADERS DERIVED GREAT SATISFACTION FROM WATCHING THE CONSTRUCTION AND OTHER MEMBERS OF THE KEHILLAH TOO WOULD FREQUENT THE BUILDING SITE TO VIEW ITS PROGRESS. IN ADDITION TO THOSE WHO HAD CONTRIBUTED THE INITIAL PLOT OF LAND, BAHUR BEN CHAIM, NISSIM TZVI, ALBERT MONTIAS, CHAIM SHALTI AND NISSIM MENASHE Z”L DONATED LARGE AMOUNTS OF MONEY FOR ITS CONSTRUCTION.

 

SLOWLY, THE BUILDING TOOK SHAPE. THE ARCHITECT PROVED HIMSELF TO BE TRUE TO HIS REPUTATION AND A MAGNIFICENT EDIFICE CAME INTO BEING, SURPASSING ALL EXPECTATIONS. IT WAS AESTHETICALLY PLEASING, WISELY LAID OUT, AND SOLIDLY BUILT. SKYLIGHTS WERE INSTALLED IN THE CEILING, ALLOWING THE SUN’S GLORIOUS RAYS TO STREAM INSIDE. STRATEGICALLY POSITIONED ORNAMENTAL PILLARS GAVE THE MAIN HALL AN AIR OF AUSTERITY. IN THE BEIT KNESSET PROPER, THE RAISED PLATFORM FROM WHERE THE SHALIACH TZIBBUR AND BAAL KOREI LEAD THE SERVICES WAS POSITIONED IN THE CENTRE OF THE PEW. THE FURNITURE WAS MADE OF THE HIGHEST QUALITY WOOD, BY THE BEST CARPENTERS AVAILABLE.

 

ON 8 MAY 1913 THE JEWS OF ANTWERP CELEBRATED A MOMENTOUS OCCASION; THE INAUGURATION OF THE NEW BEIT KNESSET. THE KEHILLAH’S RABBIS AND OTHER DIGNITARIES GRACED THE EVENT WITH THEIR PRESENCE. A CHOIR AND A BAND LIVENED UP THE PROCEEDINGS AND A LAVISH MEAL WAS SERVED. BEDECKED IN THEIR FINEST CLOTHING, THE JEWS OF ANTWERP TURNED OUT TO PARTICIPATE IN THE LONG AWAITED CEREMONY. WITH GREAT EMOTION, THE VERY FIRST PRAYER SERVICE TOOK PLACE IN THAT BEIT KNESSET. IT WAS A DAY OF TREMENDOUS PRIDE AND HONOUR FOR ANTWERP’S SEPHARDIC-PORTUGUESE KEHILLAH. THE KEHILLAH CONTINUED TO CONDUCT ITSELF IN THE REFINED AND PLEASANT MANNER CHARACTERISTIC OF TURKISH JEWS.

 

DEVELOPMENT OF THE COMMUNITY

THE KEHILLAH’S DEVELOPMENT WAS ADVERSELY AFFECTED BY WORLD WAR I. GERMANY INVADED BELGIUM AND NEAR ANTWERP FIERCE FIGHTING TOOK PLACE BETWEEN GERMAN AND BELGIAN TROOPS. MANY JEWS LEFT BATTLE-PLAGUED BELGIUM FOR OTHER COUNTRIES UNTIL THE WAR’S END. AFTER THE WAR, THE JEWS CAME BACK AND THE COMMUNITY FLOURISHED AGAIN. FROM THEN UNTIL THE OUTBREAK OF WORLD WAR II THE KEHILLAH ENJOYED A GOLDEN ERA.

 

BELGIUM WAS THE FIRST COUNTRY TO BE OVERRUN BY THE NAZIS IN WORLD WAR I. ITS WESTERN FRONT TURNED INTO A BLOODY BATTLEFIELD. ALTHOUGH PRE-WAR BELGIUM WAS A NEUTRAL COUNTRY, IT STOOD IN GERMANY’S WAY TO FRANCE AND WAS CONSEQUENTLY INVADED. THE GERMAN INVASION OF BELGIUM WAS WHAT CAUSED GREAT BRITAIN – WHO HAD GUARANTEED BELGIUM’S SOVEREIGNTY – TO ENTER THE WAR. BELGIUM’S STUBBORN STANCE SLOWED DOWN GERMANY’S MOMENTUM AND GAVE FRANCE AND GREAT BRITAIN THE TIME THEY NEEDED TO ORGANIZE THEMSELVES TO PREVENT THE OCCUPATION OF FRANCE.

 

THE GERMAN OCCUPATION WAS A CRUEL ONE. MILLIONS OF BELGIAN REFUGEES FLED TO NEUTRAL HOLLAND. BELGIUM’S ROYAL FAMILY, AT ITS HELM ALBERT I – THE KING OF BELGIUM WHO WAS THE COMMANDER-IN-CHIEF OF THE BELGIAN ARMY – BECAME A UNIFYING NATIONAL SYMBOL THAT BREATHED HOPE AND PRIDE INTO THE BELGIAN PEOPLE.

IN ADDITION TO THE OCCUPATION OF BELGIUM PROPER, FIERCE BATTLES TOOK PLACE BETWEEN BELGIAN AND GERMAN FORCES IN THE EAST BELGIAN CONGO AND RWANDA IN AFRICA. AFTER THE RETREAT FROM LIEGE, THE BELGIANS TOOK REFUGE IN NAMUR, WHICH FELL TO THE GERMANS ON 24 AUGUST, 1914. ON 20 AUGUST KING ALBERT I INSTRUCTED HIS FORCES TO RETREAT TO THE “NATIONAL REDOUBT OF ANTWERP” IN ORDER TO FORTIFY THEMSELVES THERE AND WAIT FOR THE EUROPEAN FORCES WHO WERE TO ESTABLISH BELGIUM’S NEUTRALITY.

 

THE GROUP OF FORTRESSES AND DEFENCE OUTPOSTS AROUND ANTWERP FORMED A “NATIONAL REDOUBT” (“RÉDUIT NATIONAL” IN FRENCH), CONSIDERED TO BE INVINCIBLE TO CONVENTIONAL GROUND WARFARE. THE “NATIONAL REDOUBT OF ANTWERP” WAS MADE UP OF AN EXTERNAL AND INTERNAL RING OF FORTRESSES THAT DATED BACK TO THE 19TH CENTURY, AS WELL AS FORTIFIED DEFENCE OUTPOSTS SPACED KILOMETRES APART FROM EACH OTHER THAT WERE BUILT IN ORDER TO DEFEND THE CRUCIAL PORT OF ANTWERP.

 

MOST OF ANTWERP’S FORTRESSES WERE OUTDATED AND LACKED AMMUNITION. THE GERMAN ARMY BEGAN A FIERCE ARTILLERY ATTACK ON ANTWERP ON 28 AUGUST. THE ESCAPE ROUTES FROM THE CITY WERE BLOCKED; ANTWERP WAS SURROUNDED. IN A SERIES OF GERMAN ATTACKS FROM OCTOBER 1 THROUGH OCTOBER 4, THE OUTER RING OF FORTRESSES FELL, ONE AFTER ANOTHER. THE BELGIAN SOLDIERS WERE GREATLY DEMORALIZED BY THE LOSS OF SO MUCH TERRITORY. ON 5 OCTOBER, THE GERMANS SUCCEEDED IN BREAKING THROUGH THE BELGIAN DEFENCES AT LIER, 20 KILOMETRES SOUTHEAST OF ANTWERP. THEY PROGRESSED TO DENDERMONDE, WHERE THEY ATTEMPTED TO CROSS THE RIVER SCHELDE.

 

THE GERMAN’S “PINCER MOVEMENT” THREATENED TO BLOCK THE BELGIAN SOLDIERS’ WESTERN RETREAT ROUTE FROM ANTWERP. THE ESCAPE ROUTES TO THE EAST AND SOUTH WERE BLOCKED BY GERMAN FORCES; THOSE TO THE NORTH WERE BLOCKED BY THE CLOSED DUTCH-BELGIAN BORDER. THE DUTCH OFFERED NO MILITARY ASSISTANCE, PREFERRING TO MAINTAIN A NEUTRAL STANCE.

 

THE BELGIAN ARMY RETREATED ON 6 OCTOBER, AND ANTWERP WAS LEFT TO DEFEND ITSELF BY THE LOCAL TROOPS. BRIGADES WERE DESERTED BY THEIR COMMANDERS, AND A LARGE NUMBER OF SOLDIERS WENT AWOL, DESTROYING THEIR GUNS AND AMMUNITION IN THE PROCESS. ON 9 OCTOBER THE CITY SURRENDERED. ANTWERP REMAINED UNDER GERMAN OCCUPATION UNTIL 1918. THE BELGIAN FORCES MOVED TOWARDS THE RIVER ISERE, IN ORDER TO JOIN UP WITH THE BRITISH ARMY.

 

THE HOLOCAUST​

BLACK CLOUDS DARKENED EUROPE’S SKIES AS THE NAZIS UNLEASHED THEIR DEADLY HATE CAMPAIGN. THE FLAMES OF WAR ENGULFED ALL OF EUROPE. THE CONTINENT THAT HAD BEEN HOME TO MILLIONS OF JEWS NOW BECAME THEIR DEATHTRAP. MANY TURKISH JEWS ATTEMPTED TO FLEE TO THEIR COUNTRY OF BIRTH UNTIL THE STORM IN EUROPE WOULD ABATE, BUT THE TURKISH EMBASSY CLOSED ITS DOORS. MOST BELGIAN JEWS EITHER FLED TO SAFER TERRITORY OR WERE EXILED TO ONE OF THE INFAMOUS CONCENTRATION CAMPS.

 

IN 1939, THE SKIES OF EUROPE DARKENED AS THE NAZI POWERS CONQUERED ONE COUNTRY AFTER THE NEXT, WHILE PROPAGATING HATE-FILLED INCITEMENT AGAINST THE JEWS. IN EACH COUNTRY THEY INVADED, THE NAZIS INCITED THE LOCAL POPULATION TO COLLABORATE WITH THEM IN THEIR CRUSADE AGAINST THE JEWS.

 

ABOUT A YEAR BEFORE THE NAZI INVASION, ON APRIL 20, RABBI GAVRIEL MIZRACHI WROTE A LETTER TO THE CONSISTORY IN BRUSSELS, IN WHICH HE EXPRESSED HIS CONCERN OVER THE BATTLE CRIES ECHOING FROM GERMANY. AT THAT POINT, THE MEMBERS OF HIS KEHILLAH WERE ALL STILL IN BELGIUM AND NOT YET FULLY AWARE OF THE DANGERS FACING THEM. BEFORE A REPLY ARRIVED FROM BRUSSELS, HOWEVER, MANY JEWS DECIDED TO LEAVE ANTWERP AND FLEE TO SAFER TERRITORY. RABBI MIZRACHI WAS CAUGHT AND MURDERED BY THE NAZIS AS HE TRIED TO ESCAPE. ANOTHER NOTABLE VICTIM WAS ELI NAVON, HEAD OF THE KEHILLAH, WHO PERISHED IN AUSCHWITZ’S GAS CHAMBERS.

 

ON MAY 10, 1940 THE GERMAN ARMY INVADED BELGIUM, BRINGING DEATH AND DESTRUCTION IN THEIR WAKE. JEWS COULD NO LONGER WORK OR WALK FREELY IN THE STREETS. MANY FLED TO ENGLAND, AMERICA OR SOUTH AMERICA. THE 60 JEWISH FAMILIES WHO REMAINED IN ANTWERP WERE ORDERED TO REGISTER IN THE CITY’S REGISTRAR. RECORDS OF ANTWERP’S REGISTRAR SHOW THAT THERE WERE 153 TURKISH AND ROMANIAN JEWISH CITIZENS IN THE CITY IN 1940. TURKEY AND ROMANIA WERE BOTH ALIGNED WITH THE NAZIS IN THE AXIS POWER, THUS THEIR CITIZENS’ PRESENCE IN ANTWERP DID NOT AROUSE NAZI OPPOSITION.

 

AS THE WAR PROGRESSED, THE SITUATION DETERIORATED AND THINGS BECAME UNBEARABLE EVEN FOR THE TURKISH AND ROMANIAN CITIZENS, ESPECIALLY IF THEY WERE JEWS. MANY TURKISH NATIVES ATTEMPTED TO FLEE TO THEIR BIRTH COUNTRY, BUT BY THE FALL OF 1941, THE TURKISH EMBASSY IN BRUSSELS AND ANTWERP CLOSED ITS DOORS. THE JEWS WERE FORCED TO SEEK EXIT VISAS THROUGH THE TURKISH CONSULATE IN PARIS WHICH WAS STILL OPEN AT THAT POINT. COMMUNICATION WITH TURKISH AUTHORITIES WAS LONG AND PROTRACTED. THE TURKS WERE UNSURE HOW FAR TO GO TO PROTECT THEIR FORMER CITIZENS WHO HAD LONG SINCE ADOPTED WESTERN EUROPEAN CULTURE IN FAVOUR OF THEIR NATIVE MIDDLE EASTERN CULTURE. BY THE TIME THEY WERE READY TO MAKE DECISIONS, IT WAS TOO LATE. THE GERMANS HAD TIGHTENED THEIR GRIP ON BELGIUM AND ALL EXIT POINTS WERE CLOSED, EFFECTIVELY ANNULLING ALL ESCAPE OPTIONS FOR THE JEWS.

MUCH HAS BEEN DOCUMENTED ABOUT THE ESCAPE OF ANTWERP JEWS TO NEIGHBOURING COUNTRIES. LESS HAS BEEN SAID ABOUT THE JEWS WHO STAYED BEHIND. AS THE NAZIS GAINED POWER, ANTI-SEMITISM AND PERSECUTION STEADILY INTENSIFIED. IN OCTOBER OF 1940, THE NAZIS ISSUED THEIR FIRST DECREE, A BAN ON SHECHITAH. THIS WAS FOLLOWED SHORTLY THEREAFTER BY A COMMAND FOR ALL JEWS TO REGISTER AT THE JEWISH REGISTRAR. THE JEWS WERE OBLIGATED TO REPORT ALL BUSINESSES AND ASSETS IN THEIR POSSESSION. IDENTIFICATION PAPERS WERE STAMPED WITH CONSPICUOUS RED “JUDE” STARS. 

 

THE GERMANS WAGED A GRADUAL BUT STEADY CAMPAIGN TO SEPARATE THE JEWS FROM THE REST OF THE POPULATION, FROM LIMITING THEIR FOOD RATIONS TO INFLICTING EXTREME MORAL DEGRADATION.

 

ONE OF THE WELL-KNOWN DECREES WAS THE JEWS’ OBLIGATION TO WEAR A YELLOW STAR ON THEIR CLOTHES. CHILDREN AS YOUNG AS 6 YEARS OLD WERE FORCED TO WEAR A PATCH IN THE SHAPE OF A MAGEN DAVID STAR, WHICH CLEARLY IDENTIFIED ITS WEARER AS A JEW. THE YELLOW STARS INVITED VERBAL AND PHYSICAL ASSAULTS FROM THE “BLACKSHIRTS” – THE LOCAL FASCIST COLLABORATORS. LATER ON, THE YELLOW STARS MADE IT EASIER FOR THE NAZIS TO ROUND UP JEWS IN THE STREET FOR DETAINMENT OR DEPORTATION. 

 

THE DECREES KEPT COMING, ONE AFTER THE NEXT. THE JEWS WERE BARRED FROM THE CHAMBERS OF COMMERCE, WHICH AUTOMATICALLY DISQUALIFIED THEIR BUSINESS LICENSES. A CURFEW WAS ENACTED, FORBIDDING THEM FROM LEAVING THEIR HOUSES FROM 6 IN THE EVENING UNTIL 6 IN THE MORNING. DIAMOND DEALERS WERE ORDERED TO HAND OVER ALL THEIR MERCHANDISE IN RETURN FOR A VALUELESS RECEIPT. JEWISH CHILDREN WERE BARRED FROM ATTENDING NON-JEWISH SCHOOLS AND JEWISH TEACHERS WERE FIRED. JEWS WHO HELD PUBLIC POSTS LOST THEIR POSITIONS AND LAWYERS AND JUDGES WERE NO LONGER ALLOWED TO PRACTICE. JEWISH DOCTORS WERE PROHIBITED FROM TREATING NON-JEWISH PATIENTS. JEWS WERE NOT PERMITTED TO RESIDE OUTSIDE BRUSSELS, ANTWERP, CHARLEROI, LIEGE AND GENT. FROM JULY 1942, THEY WERE PROHIBITED FROM ENTERING MOVIE THEATRES AND CONCERTS. THE PERSECUTION WAS ENFORCED ON PUBLIC TRANSPORTATION AS WELL; JEWS WERE ONLY ALLOWED TO TRAVEL IN STANDING POSITION ON THE REAR OF THE TRAMS.

 

ON APRIL 14, 1941 THE LOCAL FASCISTS CONDUCTED AN ORGANIZED TERROR RAMPAGE IN ANTWERP’S JEWISH QUARTER. THEY BURNED DOWN TWO BEIT KNESSET AND SET SIFREI TORAH AND SEFARIM ON FIRE IN THE MIDDLE OF THE STREET. THEY EVEN ATTACKED THE CHIEF RABBI IN HIS HOUSE. THE GERMAN AUTHORITIES DID NOT ALLOW FIREMEN TO APPROACH THE SCENES OF THE FIRES.


IN MAY 1942, THE DEPORTATIONS BEGAN. THE MEN WERE SENT TO FORCED LABOUR CAMPS SUCH AS DANNES AND CAMIERS, WHICH WERE OFF THE BRITISH COAST AND TO CHARLEVEILLE-MEZIERES IN FRANCE. LATER ON, THE WOMEN WERE SENT TO THE AMMUNITIONS FACTORY IN HERSTAL, BELGIUM.

 

THE FIRST TRANSPORT LEFT ON JULY 18, 1942. THE DEPORTEES WERE PROMISED GOOD WORKING CONDITIONS AND WERE ASSURED THAT SALARIES WOULD BE SENT TO THEIR FAMILY MEMBERS. THREE MONTHS LATER, ON THE NIGHT OF OCTOBER 24, THESE MEN WERE SENT TO THEIR DEATHS, MOST OF THEM IN AUSCHWITZ. ONLY THOSE WITH PROPER BELGIAN CITIZENSHIP WERE SPARED. THUS, MANY FAMILIES LOST THEIR FATHERS AND REMAINED TRAPPED IN BELGIUM, AT THE MERCY OF THE RUTHLESS NAZIS.

 

A WHILE LATER, TEENAGERS AND WOMEN WERE TOLD THAT THEY WOULD BE TAKEN TO THE DOSSIN MILITARY POST IN MECHELEN, FROM WHERE THEY WOULD BE SENT TO WORK IN EASTERN COUNTRIES. THE TRUE OBJECTIVE OF THE TRANSPORT WAS, OF COURSE, TO SEND THEM STRAIGHT TO AUSCHWITZ. THOSE WHO REALIZED THE NAZIS’ TRUE INTENT WENT INTO HIDING AND FAILED TO SHOW UP FOR WORK ROUNDUP.

 

ON JULY 22, THE GERMANS LAUNCHED A METHODICAL ROUNDUP, DETAINING ANYONE WITH A YELLOW STAR AT TRAIN STATIONS IN BRUSSELS, ANTWERP AND MECHELEN. THE DETAINEES WERE TAKEN TO THE DOSSIN DE ST. GEORGE MILITARY CAMP IN MECHELEN. ON AUGUST 4, THE FIRST TRANSPORT WAS SENT TO AUSCHWITZ. IT CONSISTED OF 998 INDIVIDUALS, INCLUDING 140 CHILDREN UNDER THE AGE OF 16. IN THE ENSUING WEEKS, OVER 25,000 BELGIAN JEWS WERE SENT TO THEIR DEATHS.

 

JOSEF PACHLER, A PROMINENT LEADER OF THE PORTUGUESE JEWISH COMMUNITY, TRIED HELPING THE JEWS WHO HAD REMAINED BEHIND IN NAZI-CONTROLLED BELGIUM. WORKING WITH THE COMMITTEE FOR THE TURKISH KEHILLAH IN BELGIUM, WHICH HE HAD ESTABLISHED WITH HIS FRIENDS IN MARCH OF 1940, PACHLER WAS ABLE TO HELP KEHILLAH MEMBERS TO GO INTO HIDING. JOSEF PACHLER IS CREDITED FOR RESCUING MANY TURKISH CITIZENS FROM THE MALINES LABOR CAMP AS WELL AS 65 FAMILIES WHO WERE DEPORTED TO BUCHENWALD.

RESTORE TO GLORY​

LIKE THE DYING EMBERS OF A FIRE THAT ARE ONCE AGAIN SET ABLAZE, HOLOCAUST SURVIVORS RETURNED TO ANTWERP AND BEGAN REBUILDING THEIR LIVES. TWO TASKS LAY BEFORE THEM: RESTORING THE RUINS OF THE BEIT KNESSET, AND REINSTITUTING THE KEHILLAH. WITH HASHEM’S HELP, THE SURVIVORS SUCCEEDED IN DOING BOTH. THE BEIT KNESSET WAS REBUILT, AND ON EREV ROSH HASHANAH

 

FAMILY MEMBERS OF KEHILLAH FAMILIES TZVI AND TOLKOVSKY, WHO WERE MURDERED IN THE HOLOCAUST

 

SERVICES RESUMED. SOON THERE WERE NEW MEMBERS WHO JOINED THE KEHILLAH – GEORGIAN JEWS AND JEWS FROM ARAB COUNTRIES. RABBONIM WERE APPOINTED AND INSTITUTIONS WERE ESTABLISHED. THE KEHILLAH WAS ONCE AGAIN ENJOYING A GOLDEN ERA.

 

 

ON 4 SEPTEMBER, 1944, THE ALLIED FORCES LIBERATED ANTWERP FROM ITS NAZI OCCUPIERS. ONLY A SMALL HANDFUL OF SURVIVORS WERE LEFT. THE MAJORITY OF ANTWERP’S JEWS, AMONG THEM MANY MEMBERS OF THE PORTUGUESE KEHILLAH, HAD PERISHED IN THE HOLOCAUST.

 

THE SURVIVORS RETURNED TO THE CITY AFTER THE WAR AND ATTEMPTED TO REBUILD THEIR LIVES. TWO TASKS LAY AHEAD OF THEM: REBUILDING THE BEIT KNESSET, AND REINSTATING THEIR ONCE-GLORIOUS KEHILLAH. ALL THE KEHILLOT AT THE TIME HAD THE SAME GOALS: TO RE-ESTABLISH THEIR RESPECTIVE COMMUNITIES.

 

TO THE GREAT FORTUNE OF THE KEHILLAH, ITS FIRST PRESIDENT ELI NAVON AND HIS FRIEND MR. CHAIM ABULAFIA HAD A NON-JEWISH FRIEND WHO HAD AGREED TO HIDE THE SIFREI TORAH, THE SHOFAR, THE KISEI SHEL ELIYAHU AND THE FAMOUS KESSER TORAH THAT HAD BEEN THE PRIDE OF THE KEHILLAH. HE HID THEM UNTIL THE WAR’S END AND NOW RETURNED THEM.

 

THE DESTRUCTION WAS HORRIFYING; THE CITY LOOKED LIKE A GHOST TOWN. LIKE DYING EMBERS FROM A FIRE, THE JEWS, EMACIATED SHADOWS FROM A NETHERWORLD, BEGAN TO RETURN TO THE CITY THAT HAD ONCE TEEMED WITH JEWISH LIFE. THE BELGIAN GOVERNMENT, AND ANTWERP’S NOBLE MAYOR, CAMILLE HUYSMANS – WHO HAD ALWAYS BEEN A FRIEND OF THE JEWS – PROMISED THAT THEY WOULD DO EVERYTHING WITHIN THEIR POWER TO RESTORE THE CITY WITH ITS ONCE-VIBRANT JEWISH LIFE TO ITS FORMER GLORY.

SCORES OF JEWS WALKED AIMLESSLY AROUND THE CITY, SEARCHING FOR SURVIVING RELATIVES AND TRYING TO RECLAIM THEIR HOMES, OFFICES AND FACTORIES, WHICH HAD BEEN TAKEN OVER BY NON-JEWS. THE SURVIVORS LIVED IN COMMUNAL HOUSING SET UP FOR THEM BY THE GOVERNMENT UNTIL MORE PERMANENT SOLUTIONS COULD BE FOUND.

THIS WAS THE SITUATION CONFRONTING THOSE WHO HAD SET OUT TO REBUILD THE PORTUGUESE KEHILLAH AND ITS ONCE BEAUTIFUL BEIT KNESSET, NOW COMPLETELY DESTROYED. ONLY THE WALLS AND ROOF OF THE BEIT KNESSET REMAINED. THE SURVIVORS – LIKE ALL SURVIVORS OF THAT TIME – WERE IN A STATE OF SHOCK FROM THE EXTENT OF THE HORRIBLE DESTRUCTION – A DESTRUCTION THAT WAS EVIDENT IN EVERY LOCATION, EVERY HOUSE, EVERY STREET AND ALLEYWAY. NOTHING WAS LEFT INTACT.

 

THE UNION OF JEWISH CONGREGATIONS IN ANTWERP WAS ONE OF THE BUSIEST ORGANIZATIONS IN BELGIUM; RESPONSIBLE FOR EXTENDING ASSISTANCE TO THE THOUSANDS OF SURVIVORS. IT OFFERED TO ABSORB THE SPANISH-PORTUGUESE COMMUNITY WITHIN THE GENERAL KEHILLAH; IT SIMPLY DID NOT BELIEVE THAT THIS SMALL COMMUNITY WOULD SUCCEED IN RESTORING ITSELF TO ITS FORMER GLORY. BUT THE SURVIVORS OF THE SPANISH-PORTUGUESE KEHILLAH REFUSED THE OFFER, PREFERRING TO REMAIN AUTONOMOUS AS THEY HAD ALWAYS BEEN.

 

THE BEIT KNESSET’S ARCHITECT, JOSEF DE LANGHE, HAD SURVIVED THE HORRORS OF THE WAR AND RETURNED TO ANTWERP AS MANY OTHERS HAD. HE HAD BEEN A YOUNG, ENERGETIC MAN WHEN THE BEIT KNESSET’S ARCHITECTURE HAD BEEN PLANNED BUT NOW HE WAS A SURVIVOR, FILLED WITH TERRIBLE MEMORIES OF HORRIFYING EVENTS UNFATHOMABLE BY THE HUMAN MIND. FOR HIM, REBUILDING THE BEIT KNESSET WAS HIS OWN PERSONAL RECONSTRUCTION AS WELL. THE RESTORATION OF THE BEIT KNESSET BECAME AN OBSESSION FOR OTHER SURVIVORS TOO. 

THE KEHILLAH’S COUNCIL WAS REINSTATED AND BEGAN TO LOOK FOR PRIVATE DONORS TO FINANCE THE RECONSTRUCTION. THEY MADE THE ROUNDS OF WEALTHY SPANISH KEHILLOT ABROAD TO GATHER DONATIONS SO THEY COULD BEGIN BUILDING.

 

THE UNION OF JEWISH CONGREGATIONS IN BELGIUM OR AS IT WAS KNOWN IN FRENCH, THE CONSISTOIR, AS WELL AS THE AMERICAN JOINT DISTRIBUTION COMMITTEE (THE “JOINT”) GREATLY ASSISTED IN THE REBUILDING OF THE BEIT KNESSET. THE BELGIAN MINISTRY OF RELIGION OFFERED ASSISTANCE AS WELL, AS DID THE NEWLY-FORMED GOVERNMENT OF WEST GERMANY WHICH SOUGHT TO ATONE FOR THE SINS OF ITS PREDECESSORS BY PROVIDING FUNDS FOR THE REBUILDING OF BATEI KNESSET. IT WOULD HAVE BEEN PRACTICALLY IMPOSSIBLE FOR THE KEHILLAH TO RAISE ALL THAT MONEY ON ITS OWN.

 

THE DRY BONES QUOTED IN SEFER YECHEZKEL METAPHORICALLY CAME TO LIFE IN THE FORM OF THE NEWLY RENOVATED BEIT KNESSET. THE NAZI FOE, WHICH HAD PROCLAIMED THAT THE DAY WOULD COME WHEN JEWS WOULD NO LONGER WALK THE STREETS OF EUROPE, SAW ITS FINAL DEFEAT AS DEMOLISHED JEWISH BUILDINGS WERE REBUILT. THE VOICES OF TORAH AND TEFILLAH AND THE HUM OF JEWISH BUSINESSES WERE HEARD ONCE AGAIN. THE JEWISH KEHILLAH OF ANTWERP, WITHIN IT THE SPANISH-PORTUGUESE KEHILLAH, WAS REVIVED.

ON EREV ROSH HASHANAH, 1946, A FEELING OF REBIRTH HUNG IN THE AIR. THE ONCE-DESOLATE BEIT KNESSET, NOW COMPLETELY REBUILT, OPENED ITS DOORS AND THE FIRST PRAYER SERVICE TOOK PLACE. WHEN THE SECOND BEIS HAMIKDASH WAS REBUILT, THE ELDERS STOOD AND WEPT BECAUSE IT BORE NO RESEMBLANCE TO THE FIRST BEIS HAMIKDASH. HERE A SIMILAR SCENE UNFOLDED. THE YOUTH REJOICED IN THE BUILDING OF THE BEIT KNESSET, BUT THE ELDER MEMBERS OF THE KEHILLAH HAD MIXED EMOTIONS. THEY SHED TEARS OF JOY AND SADNESS SIMULTANEOUSLY – JOY AT THE REDEDICATION OF THE BEIT KNESSET, AND SADNESS AT WHAT WAS AND WOULD NEVER BE AGAIN. THEY LOOKED AT THOSE WHO HAD GATHERED AND REMEMBERED THOSE WHO WOULD NEVER JOIN THEM, EVER. MOST CONSPICUOUS WAS THE ABSENCE OF ELI NAVON HY”D, THE KEHILLAH’S PRESIDENT WHO HAD BEEN DEPORTED TO AUSCHWITZ AND NEVER RETURNED.

 

IN THE AFTERNOON OF THE FIRST DAY OF ROSH HASHANAH, THE MEMBERS WERE OVERCOME WITH EMOTION WHEN ONE OF THEM ENTERED THE BEIT KNESSET BEARING THE SIFREI TORAH, THE SHOFAR, THE KISEI SHEL ELIYAHU AND THE TORAH CROWNS THAT HAD BEEN HIDDEN BY A NON-JEW AND NOW RECLAIMED. THEY READ FROM THE SIFREI TORAH AND CRIED; READ, AND CRIED.

 

THEY REJOICED WITH WHAT THEY DID HAVE, AND WEPT FOR THAT WHICH THEY WOULD NEVER HAVE AGAIN. ONE CAN ONLY IMAGINE WHAT THE SHOFAR-BLOWING AND “MI SHEBEIRACH” MUST HAVE BEEN LIKE, AND HOW LONG YIZKOR MUST HAVE TAKEN.

 

ON 30 MAY, 1947 THE KEHILLAH WAS INFLUENTIAL ENOUGH AND LARGE ENOUGH TO HOLD INTERNAL ELECTIONS. JACQUES CHALHOUN WAS ELECTED AS PRESIDENT, DAVID ASHAEL WAS ELECTED AS VICE-PRESIDENT, AND MR. LEO STEINGARDT WAS ELECTED AS THE KEHILLAH’S ADMINISTRATOR.

 

RABBI SALOMON ADOTTE OF ISTANBUL WAS APPOINTED RAV OF THE KEHILLAH, A POSITION WHICH HE HELD UNTIL 31 MAY 1951. FOLLOWING HIM, RABBI ELIYAHU BANOUMOU OF IZMIR WAS ELECTED AS RAV; HE CONTINUED TO BUILD THE KEHILLAH AND TO SERVE AS ITS RAV AND CHAZZAN UNTIL 14 FEBRUARY, 1982.

 

THE SPANISH-PORTUGUESE KEHILLAH WAS REVITALISED. IT BECAME PART OF JEWISH LIFE IN ANTWERP, ALTHOUGH MOST OF ITS CHILDREN ATTENDED PRIVATE SCHOOLS. IN 1954, NEW FAMILIES FROM ARAB LANDS JOINED THE COMMUNITY. THAT YEAR WAS A TUMULTUOUS ONE IN THE MIDDLE EAST; GOVERNMENTS WERE OVERTHROWN, PRESIDENTS WERE OUSTED AND KINGS REPLACED. THE JEWS FOUND THEMSELVES BETWEEN A ROCK AND A HARD PLACE AND DECIDED TO FLEE. A NUMBER OF THEM REACHED BELGIUM, WHERE THEY WERE WARMLY WELCOMED BY THE ANTWERP KEHILLAH. IN 1956 THE TASHA, ESSAS, SALAH, AJMI AND JAMOS FAMILIES ARRIVED, AMONG OTHERS. THEY ALL INTEGRATED WELL INTO THE KEHILLAH, AND AS DEALERS AT THE DIAMOND EXCHANGE.

 

ON 19 MAY 1961 MR. YOSEF PECHLAR RETIRED FROM THE LEADERSHIP OF THE COMMUNITY, TO BE REPLACED BY MR. SAMUEL DE TOLEDO AND MR. MAURICE MENASHEH.

 

IT SEEMED AS THOUGH THE ANTWERP KEHILLAH WAS EXPERIENCING A SECOND GOLDEN ERA. FIVE SIFREI TORAH WERE HOUSED WITHIN THE BEIT KNESSET’S ARON KODESH. THE KEHILLAH NUMBERED APPROXIMATELY 100 FAMILIES WHO TOOK AN ACTIVE ROLE IN THE BEIT KNESSET AND PRAYED THERE REGULARLY. AND THEN BEGAN THE LARGESCALE EMIGRATION OF JEWS FROM THE FORMER U.S.S.R., WHICH HAD OPENED ITS GATES TO LET THEM OUT. WHEN THESE JEWS ARRIVED IN ISRAEL AND REALIZED THAT THE FINANCIAL SECURITY PROMISED THEM WAS NEVER GOING TO MATERIALIZE, MANY OF THEM WANTED TO EITHER RETURN TO GEORGIA OR EMIGRATE TO THE UNITED STATES. IN ORDER TO DO EITHER, THEY FIRST HAD TO UNDERGO A MONTH’S WAITING PERIOD IN A EUROPEAN COUNTRY. SOME OF THEM STOPPED OVER IN VIENNA; OTHERS WENT TO ANTWERP. THEIR STAY IN ANTWERP WAS SO PLEASANT THAT THE GEORGIAN AND RUSSIAN JEWS – MANY OF WHOM DEALT IN JEWELLERY AND DIAMONDS – DECIDED TO MAKE THEIR STAY PERMANENT AND JOIN THE PORTUGUESE KEHILLAH.

 

IN MAY OF 1967, THE KEHILLAH’S PRESIDENT MR. JACQUES CHALHOUN RESIGNED. MR. LEO STEINGARDT WAS APPOINTED AS PRESIDENT IN HIS STEAD. MR. TUFIK ESSAS WAS APPOINTED VICE-PRESIDENT AND MR. UZIEL ADMINISTRATOR.

 

PART AND PARCEL OF TAKING CARE OF THE KEHILLAH’S NEEDS WAS THE OBLIGATION TO SEE TO THE PROPER BURIAL OF ITS DECEASED. BELGIAN LAW ALLOWS FOR LAND TO BE TILLED ONCE EVERY 50 YEARS, A LAW WHICH PREVENTED THE KEHILLAH FROM PURCHASING A PLOT OF LAND IN BELGIUM FOR BURIAL USE. ON 19 SEPTEMBER 1968 AN AGREEMENT TO RESOLVE THIS PROBLEM WAS SIGNED AND NOTARISED. WITH THE COMBINED EFFORTS OF LEO STEINGARDT, TUFIK ESSAS, MR. UZIEL AND OTHER GENEROUS DONORS, THE SEPHARDIC KEHILLAH, ALONG WITH OTHER KEHILLOT IN ANTWERP PURCHASED THE RIGHTS TO BURY THEIR DEAD IN A LARGE PLOT OF LAND IN THE VILLAGE OF PUTTE, IN THE FRIESLAND SECTION OF HOLLAND. THE ARRANGEMENT BETWEEN THE SPANISH-PORTUGUESE COMMUNITY AND THE TITLEHOLDERS OF THE CEMETERY IS IN EFFECT TO THIS DAY.

THE TERROR ATTACK OF 1981

A POWERFUL EXPLOSION REVERBERATED ACROSS ANTWERP ON THE MORNING OF CHAG SHEMINI ATZERET IN 1981. DIABOLICAL TERRORISTS HAD EXPLODED A MASSIVE BOMB AT THE ENTRANCE TO THE BEIT KNESSET. THE EXTENT OF THE DESTRUCTION WAS HORRIFYING: THE ROOF COLLAPSED, DOORS WERE RIPPED FROM THEIR HINGES, AND ALL THE WINDOWS OF THE BEIT KNESSET SHATTERED. THE FESTIVE STREET WAS TRANSFORMED INTO A DEATH TRAP. WHAT THE TERRORISTS DIDN’T KNOW WAS THAT THE TRAGEDY COULD HAVE BEEN EVEN WORSE. A LAST-MINUTE SCHEDULE CHANGE PUSHED THE PRAYER TIME OFF BY HALF AN HOUR, AND SO, AT THE TIME OF THE BLAST, THE BEIT KNESSET WASN’T COMPLETELY FULL. ALSO, MANY OF THE NON-JEWISH EMPLOYEES IN THE DIAMOND DISTRICT HAD TAKEN THE DAY OFF, FURTHER MINIMIZING THE AMOUNT OF CASUALTIES.

 

TUESDAY, OCTOBER 20, 1981 WAS THE DAY OF SHEMINI ATZERET IN ANTWERP. THE JEWS WHO WALKED THAT MORNING TO THE BEIT KNESSET FOR THE HOLIDAY PRAYER SERVICE HAD NO IDEA WHAT A TERRIBLE TRAGEDY WAS FATED TO OCCUR ON WHAT SHOULD HAVE BEEN ONE OF THE HAPPIEST DAYS IN THE YEAR. ONE BY ONE, THE MEMBERS OF THE SEPHARDIC-PORTUGUESE CONGREGATION BEGAN TO ARRIVE FOR THE MORNING PRAYERS. THE 200 FAMILIES OF THE KEHILLAH WERE LOOKING FORWARD TO A DAY OF JOYOUS DANCING WITH THE SEFER TORAH, A DAY OF SPIRITUAL INSPIRATION AND SOCIAL CAMARADERIE. EARLIER THAT DAY, GENEROUS KEHILLAH MEMBERS HAD BROUGHT SUMPTUOUS FOOD TO SERVE THEIR FELLOW CONGREGANTS DURING THE CELEBRATION OF THE TORAH. THE CHILDREN CHEERED WHEN THEY SAW THEM APPROACHING THE BEIT KNESSET, FOR IT WAS CUSTOMARY IN THE KEHILLAH TO ENHANCE THE CHILDREN’S JOY OF CELEBRATING THE TORAH BY INDULGING THEM WITH SPECIAL TREATS. 


BUT THAT WASN’T WHAT A FEW EVIL TERRORISTS HAD IN MIND WHEN THEY PARKED

 

THEIR VAN OPPOSITE THE BEIT KNESSET. THEIR VEHICLE WASN’T FULL OF HOLIDAY DELICACIES FOR THE JEWS. IT WAS PACKED WITH POWERFUL EXPLOSIVES THAT WERE INTENDED TO TRANSFORM THE DAY OF CELEBRATION INTO A DAY OF MOURNING, AND THE LAUGHTER INTO WEEPING AND WAILING. THEY WAITED FOR WHAT THEY THOUGHT WOULD BE AN OPTIMAL TIME, AND AT 9:04 A LOUD BOOM WAS SUDDENLY HEARD THROUGHOUT ANTWERP. THE VAN EXPLODED, AND WITH IT EVERYONE WHO WAS IN THE VICINITY. IN A SPLIT SECOND, THE FESTIVITIES IN THE BEIT KNESSET STOPPED SHORT AND THE REJOICING FOR ALL THE JEWS IN ANTWERP ABRUPTLY ENDED. IN FACT, THE DAILY ROUTINE OF EVERY RESIDENT IN THE OTHERWISE PEACEFUL CITY WAS DISRUPTED.

RESCUE TEAMS ARRIVED ALMOST IMMEDIATELY. UTTER CHAOS REIGNED AT THE SCENE. THE WOUNDED CRIED OUT IN PAIN FROM ALL DIRECTIONS. THE QUIET, CALM STREET OF THE DIAMOND EXCHANGE RESEMBLED A BATTLEFIELD. POOLS OF BLOOD WERE VISIBLE EVERYWHERE, AND THE PIERCING WAIL OF DOZENS OF AMBULANCES WERE HEARD. SINCE WORLD WAR TWO, ANTWERP HADN’T SUFFERED ANYTHING SO DISASTROUS. RELATIVES OF THE VICTIMS WHO HEARD THE HORRENDOUS EXPLOSION GATHERED AT THE SCENE, DESPERATE TO FIND OUT WHAT HAPPENED TO THEIR LOVED ONES. EMERGENCY HOTLINES WERE SET UP. THE BELGIANS WERE NOT PREPARED TO HANDLE SOMETHING SO CATASTROPHIC. EVERY MEDIA STATION WAS THERE, REPORTING IN DETAIL ON THE HOLIDAY AND ON THE EXPLOSION THAT HAD OCCURRED. JOE KATZ AND SILVO COHEN IMMEDIATELY REMOVED THE TORAH SCROLLS FROM THE ARON KODESH, AND TOOK THEM TO A SAFE PLACE IN THE DIAMOND DISTRICT.

 

A SHORT TIME LATER, THE MAGNITUDE OF THE TRAGEDY WAS MADE KNOWN: 4 DEAD, 15 SERIOUSLY INJURED, AND 125 LIGHTLY INJURED. AS A RESULT OF THE EXPLOSION, ALL THE DISPLAY WINDOWS IN THE FAMOUS DIAMOND DISTRICT STORES AND OFFICES CRACKED.

 

BUT ALONGSIDE THE TERRIBLE DISASTER, MIRACLES COULD BE SEEN. THE TERRORISTS HAD GATHERED INFORMATIONABOUT THE PRAYER SCHEDULE IN THE BEIT KNESSET, AND THEY KNEW THAT ON THE HOLIDAY THE JEWS WOULD BEGIN PRAYING AT 9:00 IN THE MORNING. BUT WHAT THEY DIDN’T KNOW WAS THAT BECAUSE THE JEWS HAD DANCED WITH THE TORAH UNTIL VERY LATE THE NIGHT BEFORE, RABBI ELIYAHU BONOMO – THE RABBI OF THE KEHILLAH – ANNOUNCED THAT THE NEXT MORNING, THE MORNING OF SHEMINI ATZERET, PRAYERS WOULD BEGIN AT 9:30 INSTEAD OF 9:00. SO AT THE TIME OF THE EXPLOSION, THERE WERE STILL MANY JEWS WHO HAD NOT YET ARRIVED AT THE BEIT KNESSET.

 

ANOTHER MIRACLE WAS THAT THERE WERE A RELATIVELY SMALL NUMBER OF DIAMOND DISTRICT WORKERS IN THE AREA THAT MORNING. SINCE THE JEWS WERE CELEBRATING A HOLIDAY, MANY OF THE DIAMOND DEALERS, EVEN NON-JEWISH DEALERS, TOOK THE DAY OFF. THE DISTRICT, WHICH WAS USUALLY TEEMING WITH PEOPLE, WAS NEARLY EMPTY. THE TOTAL NUMBER OF CASUALTIES WAS MUCH LESS THAT WHAT IT MIGHT HAVE BEEN IF EVERYONE HAD SHOWN UP TO WORK.

 

AFTER THE SMOKE CLEARED AND THE VICTIMS WERE EVACUATED, THE EXTENT OF THE DESTRUCTION OF THE BEIT KNESSET BECAME APPARENT. THE BUILDING HAD BEEN SEVERELY DAMAGED. PART OF THE ROOF HAD COLLAPSED, THE DOORS HAD BEEN RIPPED OFF THEIR HINGES, AND EVERY SINGLE WINDOW HAD BEEN SHATTERED BY THE FORCE OF THE BLAST.

 

THE UNITY OF THE JEWISH NATION IS ALWAYS REVEALED IN SUCH CIRCUMSTANCES. EVERYBODY JOINED FORCES WITH A COMMON PURPOSE – TO HELP THE SEPHARDIC-PORTUGUESE KEHILLAH RECOVER FROM THE DISASTER. COMMITTEES OF CONGREGANTS FROM EVERY SINGLE BEIT KNESSET IN THE CITY MADE ROUNDS OF THE HOSPITALS, VISITING THE INJURED AND HELPING THEIR FAMILIES AS MUCH AS THEY COULD. THEY COLLECTED DONATIONS TOWARDS RENOVATING THE BEIT KNESSET. AMONG THE LARGEST DONATIONS FOR REPAIRS WAS A CONTRIBUTION FROM THE BELGIAN ROYAL FAMILY, WHO FELT IT WAS THEIR MORAL AND FINANCIAL DUTY TO OFFER HELP, ATTESTING TO THE SINCERE FONDNESS THAT THE BELGIAN PEOPLE FEEL FOR THE JEWS IN THEIR MIDST.

 

OF COURSE, THE BULK OF THE RENOVATION EXPENSES FELL ON THE SHOULDERS OF THE MEMBERS OF THE SEPHARDICPORTUGUESE CONGREGATION. EACH ONE OF THEM CONTACTED FRIENDS AND ACQUAINTANCES, AND EACH CONTRIBUTED THE UTMOST, IN AN EFFORT TO REPAIR THE DAMAGE AND RESTORE THE GLORY OF THE SEPHARDIC-PORTUGUESE BEIT KNESSET. AMONG THE DONORS WERE YOSSI PINCHASI, YOSEF TESHA, AND AMNON RACHMINOV, WHO TOOK TIME TO COLLECT MONEY FROM OTHERS, AND GAVE GENEROUSLY FROM THEIR OWN POCKETS TO HELP FUND THE WORTHY CAUSE. THE ARTIST EDWARD LEIBOVITZ, CONTRACTED TO REPLACE THE WINDOWS, DECORATED THEM WITH STAINED GLASS DEPICTIONS OF THE TWELVE TRIBES. THAT ARTWORK ALONE MADE THE BUILDING ALL THE MORE BEAUTIFUL. A NEW AIR-CONDITIONING SYSTEM WAS DONATED BY THE AMBACH FAMILY.

 

THE KEHILLAH CONTINUED TO CONDUCT ITS AFFAIRS PEACEFULLY. MARK ANDRE TSUKER REPLACED LEO STEINGRAD AS COMMUNITY PRESIDENT. RABBI ELIYAHU BONOMO, WHO RETIRED IN AUGUST 1983 AND IMMIGRATED TO THE HOLY LAND, WAS REPLACED BY RABBI AVRAHAM MUGRABI, WHO CAME ESPECIALLY TO ANTWERP TO LEAD THE COMMUNITY.

 

IN 1997 RABBI MUGRABI RETIRED AND EMIGRATED TO ERETZ YISRAEL.

RENAMING THE SYNAGOGUE

 

THE PORTUGUESE COMMUNITY – WHICH NO LONGER HAD ANY MEMBERS FROM PORTUGAL - WAS MISSING ONLY ONE THING; A HEBREW NAME. THE MATTER WAS RESOLVED BY THE MORIS TCHE FAMILY, WHO RENOVATED THE BEIT KNESSET, PURCHASED NEW FURNITURE, AND NAMED THE BEIT KNESSET AND THE

 

 

COMMUNITY AFTER A FAMILY MEMBER: KEHILLAT BEIT MOSHE.

 

THE KEHILLAH WAS FULLY FUNCTIONING AND EVERYTHING WAS RUNNING SMOOTHLY. ONLY ONE THING VEXED THE KEHILLAH’S LEADERS; ITS LACK OF A PROPER HEBREW NAME. FOR MANY YEARS THE KEHILLAH HAD BEEN COLLOQUIALLY CALLED “THE PORTUGUESE BEIT KNESSET” AND THE LEADERS FELT IT WAS TIME TO CHANGE THAT.

 

ALL THAT CHANGED WHEN ONE OF THE KEHILLAH’S STAUNCHEST SUPPORTERS, MORIS TACHE, PASSED AWAY. MR. ROBERT TABOUSH, PRESIDENT OF THE KEHILLAH, WHO VERY MUCH WANTED TO ENDOW THE KEHILLAH WITH A HEBREW NAME, ENCOURAGED THE TACHE FAMILY TO DEDICATE THE RENOVATION OF THE BEIT KNESSET TO THEIR FATHER.

 

MORIS TACHE’S SONS – YOSEF, YITZCHAK, AND REUVEN, AGREED TO FUND THE REFURBISHMENT OF THE ENTIRE BEIT KNESSET - DOWN TO THE SMALLEST DETAIL. THE INTRICATE MOSAIC FLOORING HAD BEEN DAMAGED DURING WORLD WAR II AND ITS UNSIGHTLY CHIPS WERE COVERED UP WITH RUGS. SOME OF THE LIGHTING FIXTURES WERE NO LONGER WORKING AND THE FURNITURE WAS SCRATCHED AND BROKEN. THE TACHE FAMILY REPAIRED THE TILES, INSTALLED NEW LIGHTING FIXTURES, NEW DOORS, AND NEW WOODEN BENCHES. THEY ALSO ADDED A NEW WING TO THE BEIT KNESSET; A DINING ROOM WHERE THE CONGREGANTS COULD EAT BREAKFAST AFTER THE MORNING SERVICE, BEFORE HEADING OUT TO WORK AT THE NEARBY DIAMOND EXCHANGE. IN GRATITUDE FOR THE FAMILY’S GENEROSITY, THE KEHILLAH WAS THENCEFORTH CALLED “KEHILLAT HASEFARDIM BEIT MOSHE.”

 

DURING THE THREE MONTHS OF RENOVATION, THE BEIT KNESSET WAS CLOSED TO THE PUBLIC. INSTEAD, SERVICES WERE CONDUCTED IN A ROOM IN THE GREAT BEIT KNESSET OF THE SHOMREI HADAS KEHILLAH, WITH KIND PERMISSION OF MR. YOSEF SCHULDINER Z”L.

 

IT WAS A DAY OF GREAT REJOICING FOR ANTWERP JEWRY WHEN THE BEIT KNESSET WAS FINALLY REOPENED TO THE PUBLIC. THE OCCASION WAS CELEBRATED WITH POMP AND CEREMONY AND ATTENDED BY MANY PEOPLE. TO COMMEMORATE THE EVENT, MR. OVADIA ROBERT TABOUSH, PRESIDENT OF THE KEHILLAH, PRESENTED THE BEIT KNESSET WITH A NEW SEFER TORAH. THE GAON RABBI ELIYAHU ABERGIL, AV BEIS DIN OF JERUSALEM, GRACED THE EVENT WITH HIS PRESENCE, AFFIRMING THE CLOSE TIES ENJOYED BY THE JEWISH KEHILLOT OF ANTWERP AND JERUSALEM.