Belgium wants to come clean about the role of its railways in deportations during World War II.
Mobility Minister Georges Gilkinet and Senate President Stéphanie D’Hose have ordered an independent investigation into the role of railway company SNCB in the wartime deportations of Jewish people, Roma and resistance fighters during the German occupation, they said Thursday, marking International Holocaust Remembrance Day.
Between July 1942 and the end of the war, SNCB carried more than 25,000 Jewish people and 353 Roma people from the Dossin Barracks in the Belgian city of Mechelen to Auschwitz and other concentration camps. Not many survived.
The railway company has acknowledged its role in the convoys, but it was never studied in detail.
“The fact that Jewish people were deported by the SNCB, by Belgian train drivers, Belgian locomotives … that isn’t a secret, we’ve known that for some time,” Nico Wouters, who heads the Study and Documentation Centre for War and Contemporary Society that’s charged with the investigation, told VRT.
But when it comes to the decision-making and implementation of the convoys, there are still large knowledge gaps, he added.
The study will also look into the role of about 6,700 members of the resistance who worked for the SNCB, and the extent to which sabotage operations were possible.
“At a time when racism and polarization all too often dominate the public debate, it’s important to shed a light on this dark page of our history,” Gilkinet said in a statement Thursday.
“This duty to remember … prompts us today, and time and again and in spite of everything, to defend our fundamental values of respect, freedom and diversity,” he added.
Neighboring countries have taken similar steps.
Dutch railway company NS paid more than €43 million to victims or their close relatives following a 2018 decision to offer people who were transported on the company’s wartime convoys financial compensation. According to research for a television program in 2015, the company earned about €2.5 million from the deportation of Jews.
In 2014, France cut a deal with the U.S. to pay $60 million in compensation to American victims of war-time deportations by French railway company SNCF.
The Belgian parliament in 2019 called for an independent investigation of the Belgian railways’ wartime role. It’s too soon to say whether the Belgian study will ultimately lead to compensation payments, a spokesperson for the mobility minister said.
The study is expected to be finished and sent to the Senate next year.