On May 10th, 1940, the Germans invaded Belgium. After the Belgian surrender, the occupiers installed a Militärverwaltung (‘military administration’) led by general Alexander von Falkenhausen. The anti-Jewish policy, as pursued in Germany, was now also enforced in Belgium.
The consequences were soon evident. Through eighteen anti-Jewish regulations between October 1940 and September 1942, Jews were slowly but surely excluded from the social-economic life. An important first step was the compulsory registration. All Jews above the age of fifteen were registered in a municipal register. Their identity cards were also marked with ‘Jood-Juif’. This way, 55.670 of the estimated 60.000 or 70.000 Jews living in Belgium were registered. A lot of them were people who fled from tsarist Russia in the twenties; 40% of them had Polish nationality and about 12.000 Jews were from Nazi Germany. Thus, they were mainly foreign refugees. Thanks to this list, the Germans had a clear idea of Jewish’ presence and activities in Belgium. On May 27th, 1942, a new regulation followed which required all Jews to wear the yellow Star of David. From 1941 onwards, a series of measures aimed at removing Jews from the economic life was issued. They were for example forced to make an inventory of their immovable property and they were banned from starting new companies. The most notable measure was of course the public marking of the Jewish character of their businesses and stores.
Pending a definitive decision with regard to the Jewish Question, Belgian Jews were forced to live in the cities Brussels, Antwerp, Liège and Charleroi. By the end of 1941, the ‘Association of Jews in Belgium (AJB)’, the so-called Judenrat (‘Jewish council’), was established and every Jew was obligated to join. The association served as an intermediary of the German orders to the Jewish community. The foundation fitted well within the framework of the Nazi tactics to have Jews participate in the persecution policy of the Nazis, just like in other countries.
With every measure, the occupiers moved conspicuously carefully. After all, they wanted to offend de Belgian governments and the public opinion as little as possible. For the daily rule of Belgium, the Militärverwaltung was largely dependent on the cooperation of the Belgian secretaries-general. Aside from one incident in Antwerp, the so-called Antwerp Kristallnacht (‘Crystal Night’) in April 1941, there was never a public display of physical violence against the Jews.
The year 1942 signified an important break in the Nazi politics with regard to the Jews. Take, for instance, the Wannsee Conference in January 1942. European Judaism had to be extirpated. On June 11th, 1942, in a Berlin meeting also attended by Adolf Eichmann, it was decided to start ‘evacuating’ Jews from the Netherlands, Belgium and France. Belgium had to ‘evacuate’ 20.000 Jews in the first year. In charge of this ‘evacuation’ was SS-Obersturmführer Kurt Asche, the Jewish Affairs consultant.
Within the framework of that Jew policy, Mechelen played an important part.