I received an invitation from the village of Philippeville which is in the southern part of Belgium to the inauguration of a monument in the memory of 49 Jews who were put into forced labor in quarries in Merlemont (Merlemont is part of Philippeville). The monument was erected last Sunday (16 December 2012) on the grounds of one of the quarries in Merlemont; the “S.A. Dolomies” which is nowadays part of the Lhoist Group (www.lhoist.com). I went with my brother Raffi.
Preceding to the inauguration a few speeches were given after which the national anthem of Belgium was played. Afterwards the monument was inaugurated which was followed by the inauguration and more speeches.
Finally we were all invited to the local school’s canteen in the Centre of Merlemont to have a chat, drink and snack.
The project which led to the inauguration of the monument, started when during a research on Merlemont a local city guide of the village, Marie-Noëlle Philippart, came across the Internet a phrase in a book (van Doorslaer Rudi, Schreiber Jean-Philippe, ‘De curatoren van het getto.”, Lannoo Uitgeverij, 2004, 411 p.) which indicated that during the Second World War there had been Jewish forced laborers in quarries in the village of Merlemont. After checking old records from the personnel, she found a list of fifteen names which then became the kickoff of her research which took two years and a half. She has discovered that in May 1942 a German ordinance stipulated that 60 Jews be put to work in quarries of Merlemont to mine limestone (dolomite). Of these 60 summoned, 21 workers and their families arrived during the summer of 1942 until March 1943 and lived in Merlemont. We find among them five armed partisans, hidden children, four moms who were arrested and deported on convoy XX of which at least one escaped. From late April 1945 to mid-May, there were still 28 Jewish registered incomes from Jewish workers in Merlemont, however only a few traces of their history could be found.
The project culminated also with the publishing of a book which is titled “Eté 1942 – Des étoiles jaunes à la Dolomie”. In her book the author elaborates about her findings and her communication with the witnesses she interviewed.
I had the pleasure to meet the author and other persons such as Mr. Christian Malburny from the organization Archéophil (http://users.swing.be/archeophil) who took an important role in bringing this book to fruition.
I also met with Mr. Guy Pegoretti who showed me a small house between the Place Saint-Nicolas and a small alley. The front door of the house faced the Rue des Coreneilles and had two low windows near the side of the Place Saint-Nicolas. He explained me that fourteen Jewish women lived in that house in the war. When they saw the Germans coming from the Rue des Coreneilles, two women succeeded to escape the house through one window each and they both fled towards the forest. The locals gave them food. Mr. Pegoretti did not know any further details on what happened with the two women, who gave them food, etc. since the locals, for obvious reasons, did not speak about it and he was only ten years old at that time. The other ladies were round up and held captive in the communal building, which nowadays is a school, until they were deported via Mechelen to concentration camps. Mr. Pegoretti’s parents owned a bakery and lived opposite the communal building on the Rue du Baron Nothomb. His testimony and more details about this episode appear in the book. It was very interesting and moving to hear it firsthand from a witness who saw this happening.
My grandfather and his brother in Merlemont:
My great-grandfather Gerschon Lehrer lived before the war in Antwerp. He, his wife and sons were summoned in December 1940 by the Germans to report on February 1st, 1941in the train station of Antwerpen-Zuid from were they would be transported to Limburg (read my other article: Expulsion Orders from WWII at the FelixArchief – Part 1: An Introduction). They did for good reasons not report but instead left Antwerp and moved in January 1941to Profondville (near Namur in the Southern part of Belgium) where they lived in a rented house. My great-grandfather commuted in the beginning by train between his work in Antwerp and their home in Profondville.
In 1942 my grandfather Berish/Bruno Lehrer and his brother yblcht”a Ernst Lehrer were told to imperatively leave school, which they attended in Charleroi, and go to work in a in a quarry company which was called Matissen in Merlemont. They were put to work there from 11 August 1942 to 07 November 1942 and were housed in Merlemont where they were free to move after work without being monitored (as was requested by Mr. Quevrin, the managing director).
In august 1942 the members of Gerschon Lehrer’s family received orders to report in Mechelen (between 1942 and 1944 the Nazis used the barracks of the Kazerne Dossin as an assembly camp, transporting 25,484 Jews and 352 gypsies from here to Auschwitz-Birkenau, visit the website of Kazerne Dossin for more information about it: www.kazernedossin.com/EN/museum/museum/2_museum-site). That is when they decided to go into hiding. Both boys were recalled from Merlemont (in agreement with the patron Mr. Quevrin) and the five family members went into hiding where a new life full of danger, anxiety and insecurity was to begin. To their good fortune, they outlived the war and returned in 1945, after the war, back to Antwerp.
Further reading and sources:
- The book “Eté 1942 – Des étoiles jaunes à la Dolomie” by Mrs. Marie-Noëlle Philippart (2012)
- EJC (European Jewish Congress) News: Belgian village remembers victims of Nazi labour camp (20 December 2012) – http://www.eurojewcong.org/belgium/8687-belgian-village-remembers-victims-of-nazi-labour-camp.html
- Canal C: Merlemont: la réhabilitation du souvenir (17 December 2012) – http://www.canalc.be/index.php?option=com_content&view=article&id=100003282:Merlemont:%20la%20%20r%C3%A9habilitation%20du%20souvenir&catid=7:philippeville–cerfontaine&Itemid=72
- L’Avenir: Rencontres et souvenirs émouvants (17 December 2012) – http://www.lavenir.net/article/detail.aspx?articleid=DMF20121217_00245624
- L’Avenir: Merlemont se souvient des travailleurs juifs (Photos) (17 December 2012) – http://www.lavenir.net/article/detail.aspx?articleid=DMF20121217_00245629
- RTBF: Hommage aux juifs contraints de travailler dans les carrières de Merlemont (17 December 2012) – http://www.rtbf.be/info/regions/detail_hommage-aux-juifs-contraints-de-travailler-dans-les-carrieres-de-merlemont?id=7894032
- La Maison de la Culture Juive: Inauguration d’une stèle commémorative en mémoire des travailleurs juifs aux Carrières de Merlemont – http://maisondelaculturejuive.be/divers/
- L’Avenir: Merlemont : une page d’histoire sur la souffrance des Juifs (3 November 2012) – http://www.lavenir.net/article/detail.aspx?articleid=DMF20121102_00226306
- L’Avenir: Curiosité, souvenirs et devoir de mémoire (3 November 2012) – http://www.lavenir.net/article/detail.aspx?articleid=DMF20121102_00226313
- L’Avenir: Quelques extraits significatifs (3 November 2012) – http://www.lavenir.net/article/detail.aspx?articleid=DMF20121102_00226309
- RTBF (news from 3 December 2012) – www.rtbf.be/tv/revoir/detail_jt-13h?uid=150855253668&idshedule=caf823e144f10a1c19973b97d874666e&catchupId=12-TIJAP100-338-13-1&serieId=12-TIJAP100-000-13 (from about 26 min.)