No ordinary clerks

Recently I went through the alien file from my great-grandfather Gerschon Lehrer, whom I am named after, which I found in the Belgian state archives.

While analyzing the documents in the file, I came across some letters written between a (Belgian) senator and someone who was working for the Belgian sûreté (State Security). What struck me was that after having checked biographies of these officers (both from the sûreté and the senator), it seemed that they played and important role, if not back then in the 1930 ´s, then in the future.

Here under are these letters which I ´d like to discuss.

The first one is a letter from 27 April 1934 by the officer of the sûreté, Mr. De Foy, who ´s checking with senator Van Berckelaer whether in the opinion of the latter my great-grandfather should be entitled to get a permit of residence in Belgium. He ´s checking whether my great-grandfather ´s stay, who was then a merchant in the diamond business, would be beneficial to the Belgium:

In the next letter, from 11 may 1934, the senator expresses his opinion that Gerschon ´s stay would not be beneficial:

With as a result that De Foy  (strict as he could be, read further), decided then  not to distribute to Gerschon and his family a permit of residence:

In the end,  after many more letters, contacts etc. Gerschon could stay after first having received the order to leave the country. Gerschon lived through the war in Belgium, albeit not in Antwerp. He and his family also had to go into hiding in order to escape of  the enemy ´s clutches. Gerschon and his family naturalized in the 1950 ´s.

Gratefully , I am currently only one of many members of the Lehrer family who still lives in Belgium with the Belgian nationality.

Let ´s return to our main topic: Who were these two men? And why was senator Van Berckelaer consulted for this?

It is most probable that senator Van Berckelaer was very well-known in the Antwerp Diamond industry, not only as a politician but before that also as a business person. I found a biography of which I copy here a loose translation:

Louis Van Berckelaer (Antwerp, 15 May 1872 – Brussels, 4 September 1936) was initially a diamond cutter by profession. He joined in 1900 the Antwerp Diamond Workers Union. During the strike for the nine hours day of his union from 1904, he was responsible for the finances of his union. He then quickly rose in the trade union movement of the diamond workers. In 1912 he became in one KLAP Chairman of the ADB, secretary of the World Federation of Diamond Workers, manager of the cooperative Adamas, board member of the Antwerp Federation of Trade Unions and member of the national committee of the Trade Union Commission. He was around the same time also the editor of the  ´De Diamantbewerker ´. Furthermore, he also sat on the committee of the mutuality of Antwerp diamond workers (1903-21) in order to eventually also become in 1921 its president. During World War I he was a member of the Antwerp Aid and Food committee (Antwerps Hulp- en Voedingscomité). He also sat in the administrative office of the provincial committee during which he also oversaw the Secretariat of the Provincial Department of the Medical Service for Wounded ( ´Geneeskundigen Dienst voor Gekwetsten ´). After the war he was again a member of the Economic Council for Reconstruction ( ´Economische Raad voor de Heropbouw ´). Van Berckelaer also positioned himself in the political field, such as a senator for the Belgian Labour Party from 1921 until his death. Under his chairmanship of the ADB, Van Berckelaer signed among others for the creation of the model grinding  ´De Daad ´, of which he later was its manager. Within the co-operative movement, he was also active as chairman of the cooperatives  ´Oud Huis ´ (Antwerp) and Excesior. He was also chairman of the  ´herverzekeringskas van de diamantbewerkers ´ (1921), and of  ´Harmonie De Werker ´ and was a member of the Higher Industrial and Labour Council.
(Translated from the following source: Louis Van Berckelaer. In: ODIS. Record Last Modified Date : 12 mei 2010, via, retrieved on 15 March 2015).

It should now be  clear why it is that De Foy consulted senator Van Berckelaer.
Let ´s see whether we can also find out more about De Foy.

There is  a long article on Wikipedia about the Robert de Foy (Geraardsbergen 23 March 1893 – Brussels 15 August 1960), who is probably the same person as the one in the letters, see Wikipedia:

There is also another, and very interesting, source about De Foy, which can be read on Yad Vashem ´s  ´The Righteous Among The Nations ´ database. Among other things we read there the following about de Foy ´s central role in applying Belgium’s restrictive emigration policy:

[…]A comprehensive study “La Belgique docile” about the conduct of the Belgian authorities during the Holocaust was published in 2006 (31 years after Robert de Foy was recognized as Righteous Among the Nations. The study showed that de Foy had a central role in applying Belgium’s restrictive emigration policy, in barring emigration and in the expulsion of foreigners, many of them Jews, shortly before and immediately following the German invasion of Belgium. These measures were implemented long before the beginning of the deportations and murder of the Jews, and therefore de Foy could not have been aware of the future consequences of these acts. These expulsions and de Foya’s blocking emigration into Belgium were conducted in the framework of Belgiuma’s general policy towards foreigners, Jews, and refugees (which was not very different from the policy of other countries). It is claimed that de Foy was motivated by anti-Semitic or xenophobic sentiments, but it is well documented that even though in the late 1930’s and beginning of 1940’s de Foy followed his country’s policy regarding Jewish refugees, he nevertheless decided to act when he was faced with murder of the Jews, saving a large number of them from deportation and death.
(Source: Yad Vashem –  ´The Righteous Among The Nations ´ database,, retrieved on 15 march 2015)

From this it became clear to me that the letters, of which I first assumed were, in a sense, ordinary letters written by just another clerk from the sûreté to just another senator, where no ordinary officials. One was may be indeed just another senator, but well-known in the diamond industry, and the other official was later to be recognized and honored by the Yad Vashem institute of Israel with the title “Righteous Among the Nations”.

In my humble opinion we may conclude from this example that sometimes each piece of paper, how small it be, can contain very interesting facts which would lead to other exciting tidbits. In our case we came across the name of Louis Van Berckelaer, which compared to Robert de Foy is (I think) indeed not a very exciting piece of extra information. When we learn more about Robert de Foy’s work before WWII, and his major role during WWII we learn history, which is nothing less than exciting and which can lead us to further research.

Update (3 April 2015):
Former ambassador Arie Avidor commented via Facebook on my post with the following useful information:

No ordinary clerk for sure! Robert de Foy was, since 1943, a member of the “government of the Secretaries General” which collaborated with the Nazi occupant while the government ministers were in exile in London. The case of Robert de Foy was much publicized in Belgium, France and Israel and it raised the question of the credibility of testimonies submitted to Yad Vashem by local witnesses and the need for its Committee of the Righteous to get a wider picture, although the committee which is led by a former judge of the Supreme Court, always includes an expert of the country which is discussed. Another problem raised with this case is tracing former collaborators (like quite many French policemen and gendarmes) who first took part in the hunting of Jews and then decided to save a few when the wind of war changed direction (like de Foy in 1943).

Added to his comment was a link to an article on the online edition of Le Figaro, I m reposting the complete article below:

Décerné à un Belge, un titre de  «Juste » est contesté

Par Adrien Jaulmes
Mis à jour le 17/01/2012 à 08:55
Publié le 16/01/2012 à 20:12

Des documents révèlent bien des ambiguïtés dans le comportement de Robert de Foy, antisémite convaincu.

Un  «Juste parmi les Nations » pourrait se voir prochainement retirer son titre. Cette distinction est décernée par Yad Vashem1, le mémorial de la Shoah à Jérusalem, à ceux qui ont sauvé des Juifs de la déportation pendant la Seconde Guerre mondiale.

Robert de Foy, secrétaire général du ministère de la Justice en Belgique pendant l’occupation allemande en 1943, s’était vu remettre après sa mort le titre de  «Juste » en 1975 pour avoir permis à plusieurs centaines de Juifs incarcérés à la caserne Dossin2, centre de transit en Belgique, d’échapper à la déportation vers Auschwitz3.

Ce haut fonctionnaire, travaillant en collaboration avec l’administration militaire allemande, les aurait aidés à établir de faux certificats de mariage avec des non-Juifs ou de maladie, ou bien en égarant des dossiers au lieu de les transmettre à la Gestapo. Il aurait aussi protesté auprès des autorités allemandes contre des déportations.

 «Procédure très rare »

Ces actions avaient valu à de Foy, mort en 1960, d’être reconnu comme  «Juste » par la commission de Yad Vashem. Jusqu’à ce que la descendante d’un couple de Juifs polonais exilés aux États-Unis, après avoir transité par Berlin et par Anvers, ne vienne contester cette distinction.

Sonia Pressman-Fuentes, militante féministe américaine connue, rencontre en 2010 un chercheur belge spécialiste des politiques d’immigration à l’université de Gand, Frank Caestecker. Celui-ci lui communique des documents selon lesquels ses parents, Juifs polonais réfugiés en Belgique, auraient manqué être renvoyés en Allemagne nazie en 1934 par le zélé Robert de Foy, alors chef des services de la Sûreté d’état belge.

Le courageux fonctionnaire aurait été dans cette première partie de sa carrière un antisémite convaincu. Soucieux d’empêcher l’afflux de réfugiés juifs d’Allemagne et d’Europe de l’Est en Belgique, il aurait, avant la guerre, expulsé et renvoyé en Allemagne des centaines de Juifs. Les parents de Sonia Pressman-Fuentes ne doivent leur salut qu’au maire d’Anvers, Camille Huysmans, qui refuse d’appliquer l’ordre d’expulsion et leur permet d’émigrer vers les États-Unis.

De Foy entretient en outre, d’après ces documents, des liens étroits avec les Allemands. Lorsqu’il est arrêté avec d’autres hauts fonctionnaires belges en juillet  1940 après la chute de la Belgique, il est très rapidement libéré sur intervention personnelle de Reinhard Heydrich, chef de la Gestapo.

Les documents remis par Sonia Pressman-Fuentes à Yad Vashem devraient conduire au réexamen du cas de Robert de Foy.  «C’est une procédure très rare », explique Irena Steinfeld, directrice du département des Justes au Mémorial de Yad Vashem.  «Sur les quelque 24.000 titres de “Justes parmi les Nations” qui ont été décernés, seuls cinq ou six ont été retirés. Il faut pour cela des éléments nouveaux et suffisamment graves pour justifier une telle procédure. »

Oskar Schindler et Raoul Wallenberg

Les critères pour être reconnu  «Juste » sont d’avoir sauvé des Juifs de la déportation au péril de sa vie et d’avoir agi sans contrepartie financière ou intention de les convertir. Les actes priment souvent sur les considérations morales.  «Il y a plusieurs cas de Justes antisémites », souligne Irena Steinfeld,  «ce sont surtout les actes qui sont pris en compte ».

Parmi les Justes les plus célèbres figurent des personnalités à la moralité incontestable, comme Raoul Wallenberg4, le diplomate suédois qui sauva des milliers de Juifs en Hongrie occupée. Mais aussi des figures plus ambiguës, comme celle d’Oskar Schindler5, industriel allemand qui avait réussi à sauver 1  100 Juifs de la déportation, et dont la tombe se trouve d’ailleurs à Jérusalem.

Le programme de sélection des  «Justes parmi les Nations » figure dans les statuts du mémorial de Yad Vashem dès sa création en 1953. Mais c’est en 1963, après le procès Eichmann, que les premiers Justes sont récompensés. Malgré le passage du temps, Yad Vashem continue d’ajouter entre 400 et 500 noms par an à cette liste qui en compte déjà plus de 24.000.

 «Les membres des trois commissions sont tous des survivants de l’Holocauste », explique-t-on à Yad Vashem, dont le musée est devenu l’un des lieux les plus visités d’Israël.  «Ils ne sont pas des historiens de formation, mais sont originaires de tous les pays d’Europe et donc familiers avec les dossiers examinés », dit Irena Steinfeld.  «Ils ne se réunissent en session plénière qu’une ou deux fois par an. Mais les décisions finales sont prises par un vote. Ce qui veut dire qu’il faut trancher de façon claire des cas parfois compliqués qui ont eu pour cadre une période troublée. C’est parfois délicat. »

Le cas de Robert de Foy doit être examiné pendant la session plénière des trois commissions d’experts chargés d’examiner au cas par cas les dossiers. La procédure pourrait prendre plusieurs années.


 » L’inlassable quête du Mémorial de la Shoah6


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(Source:, retrieved on 3 April 2015)

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