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Refugees Interned at Marneffe and Marchin (Belgium)
by Matt Stein

More than 1,000 Jewish refugees were housed at government-established centers near Liege - some eventually obtained permission to emigrate but hundreds fled to France after Germany invaded Belgium and many were caught and deported from Kazerne Dossin to Auschwitz.

Background

Between 1933 and 1940, approximately 40,000 Jewish refugees – principally from Germany, Austria, and Poland – found temporary asylum in Belgium from Nazi persecution in their countries of origin. While Belgium proved a relatively safe haven for Jews after Anschluss and Kristallnacht, there was vigorous debate and disagreement in Belgian society and political spheres about the influx of refugees.

One course of action by the Belgian government was to establish several centers (camps) to house Jewish refugees. Hundreds were rounded up in October and November 1939 in Brussels and Antwerp and sent to centers in Merksplas, Marneffe, Wortel, Nivelles, Marquain, Eksaarde, Marchin, and Saint-André-lez-Bruges. While these facilities provided shelter, food, and medical care to individuals who had been forced to flee their homes, they also permitted the government to track and limit refugees’ movement. In fact, in January 1940 these camps around Belgium were mandated to transition from Centres d’hébergement (residential centers) to more strictly controlled Centres d’internement (internment centers).

Marneffe

Marneffe, located about 75km southeast of Brussels and 35km west of Liège, was originally a château built in the 19th century. As a refugee facility, Marneffe focused on housing families and couples. Michel Charles Matton, appointed director by the Ministry of Justice, was responsible for security and administrative functions. Residents were organized into work groups responsible for daily tasks including cooking, cleaning, child care, and maintenance. While this community-run environment allowed for some autonomy, residents were not allowed to come and go as they pleased. Rather, they had to receive written permission from the director for any absence (eg, medical, applications for visas to emigrate, etc.).

Twenty refugees arrived at Marneffe on 17 June 1939 to help prepare the facility for a larger population. By the end of August, 298 people were in residence, then 402 a month later. By the end of 1939, the population stood at about 500. On 12 May 1940, two days after the German invasion of Belgium, 613 men, women, and children set out on foot towards France, led by Director Matton. Of those who arrived on French soil, many were arrested and sent to camps in Saint-Cyprien and Gurs. More than 250 were even less lucky – arrested and sent to Kazerne Dossin (also known as Mechelen, a Nazi-run transit camp in Belgium) and then on to Auschwitz.

Since the end of World War II, Marneffe has served as a Centre pénitentiaire école – a facility for incarcerated men to receive vocational training in preparation for post-prison lives.

Marchin

Marchin, located about 95km southeast of Brussels and 45km southwest of Liège, housed exclusively adult men – single, divorced, or widowered and, in some cases, married men whose wives and families were not in Belgium. Previously a military sanitorium, Marchin was a 12-hectare (30-acre) property consisting of gardens, a nine-bed infirmary, dining halls for up to 140 people, a laundry, and rooms with between two and 14 beds on the first three floors of the old château du Fourneau. While the Belgian government provided the facility, the volunteer-run Comité d'assistance aux Réfugiés juifs – a benevolent organization founded in 1933 to assist victims of German anti-semitism – provided large quantities of kitchen supplies, clothing, and other living necessities for the refugees.

Smaller than Marneffe, Marchin started with five residents in September 1939 and had increased to 160 by the time of the German invasion of Belgium in May 1940. Initially, refugees chose their work assignments, but as the population increased they were divided into various responsibilities – maintenance (plumbing, electrical, painting, carpentry, etc.) and daily living (cleaning, gardening, cooking, etc.).

On 11 May 1940, the day after the German invasion of Belgium, the decision was made by Marchin’s director, M. Henskens, to evacuate in the direction of France. The next day, led by the director, all 160 refugees loaded luggage into handcarts and headed towards Namur. As Belgium and France descended into chaos, the group encountered difficulty advancing. As a result, some of the refugees eventually found their way to France, but a group of 38 ended up back at Marchin with Director Henskens by the end of June 1940.

Database

The database consists of 828 records of refugees who spent time at Marneffe between June 1939 and May 1940 and 269 records of refugees who spent time at Marchin between September 1939 and September 1940.

The fields in the database are:

  • Camp name
  • Surname
  • Given name
  • Maiden name
  • Place of birth
  • Date of birth
  • Nationality (this is as recorded in the individual’s file at the Belgian State Archives and is not necessarily a definitive statement about their true citizenship; for example, quite a few refugees born in Vienna are identified as German, likely since they were issued German passports after the March 1938 Nazi takeover of Austria)
  • Occupation (translated from French)
  • Date of arrival
  • Date of departure (in most cases where no date of departure is indicated, the individual would have been part of the groups forced to flee en masse towards France starting 12 May 1940, right after the German invasion of Belgium)
  • Deportation (this is limited to what appears in the individual’s Marneffe or Marchin file in the Belgian State Archives and is not a complete statement about their fate: for those with a destination listed – for example “Kazerne Dossin to Auschwitz” – this does not necessarily imply that they were taken directly from Marneffe or Marchin to Kazerne Dossin but might have been arrested and deported later, after leaving Marneffe or Marchin; and for those with no destination listed, they may well have been deported from France or elsewhere after having left Marneffe or Marchin)
  • Comments (the two most common comments: 1) country to which refugees hoped to emigrate based on paperwork in their files, and 2) marital status)
  • Photo Source (Marneffe: 264/828 individuals have photos, Marchin: 95/269)

Acknowledgements

The author of this introduction and JewishGen would like to express appreciation to Professor Jean-Pierre Callens, author of the books Ça s’est passé près de chez nous : les réfugiés juifs au camp de Marchin - Septembre 1939 - Septembre 1940 (It Happened in our Backyard: Jewish Refugees Interned at Marchin - September 1939 to September 1940) and Ça s’est passé près de chez nous : les réfugiés juifs au camp de Marneffe - Juin 1939 - 12 mai 1940 (It Happened in our Backyard: Jewish Refugees Interned at Marneffe - June 1939 to May 12, 1940), for permission to use data on refugees collected from his extensive research at the National Archives of Belgium in Liège.

Almost all photos are originally from the files of the National Archives of Belgium and have been digitized by Kazerne Dossin. Gratitude to both of these institutions for permission to re-publish images.

Sincere thanks as well to Nolan Altman, JewishGen’s Director of Special Projects and Coordinator of the Holocaust Database, for his enthusiasm and guidance throughout the process of preparing the Marneffe refugees’ information for JewishGen.

This project is dedicated to the memory of my grandparents, Manfred Weinreb and Anna Isakower, who fled Vienna in late 1938 to Antwerp. In early August 1939, Dr. Weinreb – a graduate of the University of Vienna’s faculty of medicine and a urologist at the Rothchild-Spital in Vienna – arrived at Marneffe to work in the Center’s clinic. In mid-March 1940, having obtained U.S. visas, the Weinrebs departed Marneffe, returned briefly to Antwerp to say goodbye to extended family, and then sailed from St. Nazaire, France, to New York. Soon after starting the project, I discovered several photos in an old box of my grandparents during their time at Marneffe.

It is my hope that JewishGen users will find family members in this database and thus learn one more piece of their relatives’ stories.

November 2022

Matt Stein (matty@yahoo.com)


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