This is the story of seven women, all relatives of mine, who survived the German invasion of Belgium together through a crazy trip starting in Antwerp, passing through France, Morocco, Portugal, and ending in New York. I’ve written in the past about my grandfather (When my grandfather traveled to Nazi Germany to save his family) and his time before making it the US during WWII. I’ve always wanted to write about my grandmother’s journey, but lacked the documentation to visually tell the story. I now think I have enough to tell the story properly (if not completely).
My grandparents and their families knew each other in Poland, and then in Belgium, but my grandparents didn’t marry until 1943, when both had made it to New York. While their families followed similar paths for many years, at least one portion of their stories took a very different turn.
My grandmother was born Lipka Kleinhaus in 1922 in Rzeszów, Poland. She was the youngest of six children, her oldest sister nineteen years her senior. Her closest sibling in age, her brother Nusen, was ten years older than her. Like my grandfather’s family, her family found their way to Antwerp, Belgium in the 1920s. Once there, they entered the diamond business following a relative who had arrived earlier.
Some documentation of the family’s stay in Belgium can be found in the files of the Belgian Police des Étrangers which I’ve lectured on in the past. If you had family that lived in Belgium, see my Belgium page on where records can be found. The photo below, for example, came from one of the Police des Étrangers files.
The Royal Library of Belgium has scanned and indexed ten historical newspapers from Belgium, and set up a search interface for them called BelgicaPress.
The newspapers currently include:
Courrier De L’Escaut (Le)
Echo De La Presse (L’)
Gazet Van Brussel
Indépendance Belge (L’)
Indépendance Belge (L’) (Edité en Angleterre)
Messager De Gand (Le)
Nieuwe Gids (De)
Nieuwe Standaard (De)
Nieuws Van Den Dag (Het)
While I don’t have a breakdown of the ranges of each paper, the database of all the papers together ranges from 1831 until 1950 – with a big caveat. While you will get search results for all matches in the database online, all results from 1919 until 1950 are only viewable from within the Library itself, due to copyright issues.
That caveat means the database is almost useless for me (at least online), since although I had a lot of family in Belgium, almost all of it arrived there in the 1920s.
That said, if you have a fairly unique surname (that isn’t translatable into Flemish or French), and you get many results from the 1919-1950 period, you might at least know its worth checking into and ask someone in Belgium to do a search in the library for you.
Of course, there are other things that would be interesting to search besides family names. You could search for your ancestral town name, and see if other people from your town are mentioned in the newspapers. you could also search for information on the Jewish communities there, by using search terms like Jew or Jewish (Jood and Joodse in Flemish, Juif in French). If there were major news items concerning the Jewish communities in other countries (such as pogroms) it’s possible those might also show up.
One final note. The site is, as would be expected in Belgium, is available to use in Flemish (NL) and French (FR). I discovered, however, that secretly it also works in English. While there’s no link from the Flemish or French versions of the site to the English version, use the link above and it will indeed go to an English version of the site. Sometimes it might forget you’re using it in English, and not everything is translated, but it’s not bad. It was definitely developed to work in English, even if they haven’t active that yet on the site. I wouldn’t be surprised if they make the English version available one day directly from their main site, but until then, the above link works.
If you find yourself on a page that is in Flemish or French and want to see if it’s in English, look at the URL in the address field at the top of your browser and see if it says “lang=FR” or “lang=NL” in the string. If so, just replace the FR or NL with EN and hit return.
I recently discovered a document on the web site of the Felix Archives (the Antwerp city archives) called Emigration to America (this is a PDF). It seems to date back to 1999, but is still useful, especially considering no documents newer than 75 years ago are available anyways, and this document lists what documents exist in archives related to people living in Antwerp that may have emigrated to the US. The document was put together by the Archivist of the City of Antwerp. The availability dates mentioned are certainly out of date – for example it refers to certain collections available up to 1915, but those collections are now available to at least 1930 if not later. This is because as time goes on, more records are made publicly available.
Some of the interesting records mentioned in the document include registers from hotels and boarding houses, and emigration lists of third-class passengers from 1892 forward (second-class and first-class passengers were not recorded in these registers because American immigration restriction did not apply to them).
Some of the archives mentioned in the document include:
National Archives Antwerp (Rijksarchief Antwerpen)
National Archives Beveren (Rijksarchief Beveren)
National Archives of Belgium, Brussels (Algemeen Rijksarchief Brussel)
Archives of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Brussels (Archief van het Ministerie van Buitenlandse Zaken, Brussel)
National Archives, The Hague (Algemeen Rijksarchief Den Haag)
Rotterdam Municipal Archives (Gemeentearchief Rotterdam)
as well as these in the US:
National Archives and Records Administration
National Archives Regional Center in New York
New York Municipal Archives
and these genealogy societies:
Flemish Association for Family Research
(Vlaamse Vereniging voor Familiekunde)
Netherlands Genealogical Association
Keep in mind that some of the documents mentioned as being in specific archives (in 1999) are now in different archives. In particular the central immigrant police files are now in the National Archives in Brussels.
My grandfather was born in Vienna, Austria during World War I. His family had fled their homes in Galicia, then a region of Austria, and fled to the capital city to avoid the invading Russian army. His brothers, one born before him in 1911, and one after him in 1921, were both born in the Galician town of Rzeszow, known in Yiddish as Reisha.
In 1927 the family moved to Antwerp, Belgium, seeking a better life and perhaps more stable situation. As I’ve written about before, Antwerp, and Belgium in general, received many many Jewish immigrants during the interwar years, among them my family (my grandfather’s future wife also made her way around the same time to Antwerp from Rzeszow).
In 1927 my grandfather was twelve years old, and he lived in Antwerp until 1940, when he was 25. Those were, no doubt, formative years for him. I know many stories about his time there, and have found documents hinting at others in the Police des Étrangers files I’ve found. I know just a couple of years after he arrived, after his father died, he ran a watch shop near the docks of the Antwerp port, helping support his family even though he was only 14 at the time (see Don’t get stuck inside the box). I know he used his US citizenship to travel to Nazi Germany in the 1930s and helped younger cousins get out of the country (see When my grandfather traveled to Nazi Germany to save his family), as the Germans still respected a US passport (they probably hoped the US would side with them in the upcoming war). One thing I don’t really know about, however, is what kind of social life he had. Some years ago he told me he bumped into an elementary school classmate of his from Belgium in New York, and he had recognized my grandfather even all those years later. He later sent my grandfather a class photo showing both of them. When researching family we sometimes forget that our relatives spent much of their time, especially when they were teenagers and young adults, with their friends instead of their family. It’s part of what defined them and made them who they were.
In this light, some recent photographs I discovered at my grandfather’s apartment are particularly interesting. I have no idea who anyone in the photos are other than my grandfather. If you had relatives born during WWI and who lived in Antwerp in the 1930s, perhaps they’re among the people in these photos.
Know anyone in these photos?
Concerning the last photo, it raises an interesting question. Do you you think the man on the top right looks like Itzik Manger, the famous Yiddish poet? Here’s a side by side, showing a close-up of the above person, and a photo of Itzik Manger from the YIVO Encyclopedia:
I’m not an expert on Yiddish poets, and would never have thought of it, except in researching a distant cousin Golda I discovered she had once been married to (and divorced from) this famous poet from Romania. I never knew if this cousin even knew my grandfather, but if this Itzik Manger, perhaps this is evidence. Therefore is it possible that the woman he’s got his arm on is Golda, my grandfather’s cousin? or one of the other women in the photo? Here’s a picture of Golda:
So what do you think? Is that Itzik Manger? Is that my grandfather’s cousin with him on the beach, possibly in Knokke, a favorite vacation spot? The picture of Golda is obviously of an older woman than in the photo on the beach, but that makes sense sine the photo of Golda was taken in 1939, when she was 35 (she was born in 1904). In the beach photo my grandfather looks like a teenager, so it could have been 1930 or shortly thereafter.
Itzik Manger survived the war and eventually moved to Israel. My grandfather’s cousin, however, likely died during the war, although I’ve found no direct evidence of that. All I know is she shows up in the first register of Jews in Belgium in 1940 after the Germans invaded, but not in the later registration done in 1942. She doesn’t show up in deportation lists, which recorded all those deported from Belgium to Auschwitz, so she either escaped Belgium or was killed. If she escaped, perhaps she changed her name and the trail was lost, or perhaps she escaped from Belgium only to be killed later in the war – certainly a possibility.
Regular readers of this site have probably noticed my postings have slowed down of late. Please don’t think, however, that nothing is going on with this site. I’d like to take this opportunity to announce one of the main reasons I haven’t been postings frequently, which is that I have been preparing for my upcoming lecture at the IAJGS International Conference on Jewish Genealogy in Washington, DC next month.
I will be speaking on the topic of ‘Utilizing Belgian Archives for Jewish Research’ on the second day of the conference, at 9:30am on Monday morning. This lecture will be a much-expanded version of one of the first articles I posted to this web site, Researching Jewish Relatives Who Passed Through Belgium, which unfortunately is very much out of date even though it was written only last November. After the conference I will be updating the information online about this topic.
The main thrust of the lecture is to discuss the two major collections of Immigrant Police records in Belgium, at the Felix Archives in Antwerp (covering just Antwerp) and at the State Archives in Brussels (covering all of Belgium), as well as several collections of records held by the former Jewish Museum of Deportation and Resistance in Mechelen. These collections relate primarily to the tens of thousands of Jews who resided in Belgium in the early 20th century, leading up to and into World War II, when Germany occupied Belgium. These files frequently contain photographs of the individuals mentioned, and almost always mention the names and birth locations of the parents of each individual, obviously important information for genealogists.
As part of the preparation for my lecture, I have been updating much of the information I am presenting on, largely because of the many changes that have occurred related to the archives I am discussing.
Since being accepted to speak at the conference several months ago, the Felix Archives in Antwerp carried out a major redesign of their website and eliminated the finding guide for their online images of the Immigrant Police index books (instead they just point you to an online search on FamilySearch.org). In addition, the Jewish Museum for Deportation and Resistance is being closed in preparation for the creation of a new museum, the Memorial, Museum and Documentation Centre on Holocaust and Human Rights. Besides simple changes to screenshots in my presentation, these major changes have required me to re-work much of what I will be speaking on in my lecture. These two archives made up two out of the three archives I discuss in my lecture, and both have been changed considerably.
The introduction of an online search interface to the Felix Archives collection of Immigrant Police records from Antwerp was indeed a major breakthrough in researching those records, although the removal of the finding guide to the online index images by the Felix Archives in deference to this online search interface was a mistake in my opinion, as being able to browse through the original index pages can sometimes lead you to find records you may not otherwise find – not the least because the index at FamilySearch.org is not perfect.
As part of the preparation for my lecture I’ve done something that I thought others may find useful, I’ve created a new browsable interface to the Felix Archives images of the Immigrant Police records index for Antwerp.
I apologize that the user interface is not very sophisticated. As a techie I myself don’t like user interfaces that utilize frames (or iframes as they are now called), but it seemed the quickest and easiest way to put this together (although believe me, even so it was not quick or easy to create a new index to over 5000 images), and I was far enough behind in my preparation for my lecture that I did this in the quickest way possible. If you happen to be an expert at manipulating iframes using CSS, send me an e-mail as I have a somewhat easier-to-use version that has one bug that prevents me from using it instead.
So now you know why I have not been as active as usual on this web site. I hope those people whose families passed through Belgium in the 19th and 20th centuries, in particular in Antwerp, will take a look at the new browsable interface I’ve put together. I welcome comments and feedback on it.
If you’re going to be at the conference in DC, please come see my lecture on Monday morning, or if you cannot make the lecture (I know I compete against six other lectures and two meetings) please at least find me another time during the conference and say hello.
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