Yad Vashem, Israel’s center for Holocaust research, has opened an investigation into revoking the title of “Righteous Among the Nations” from a Belgian official credited with saving hundreds of lives during the Holocaust.
Robert de Foy, former head of the Belgian security services, was named a “Righteous Gentile” in 1975 for his part in the rescue of hundreds of Jews during World War II.
The exalted title is bestowed upon non-Jews who took great personal risks to protect Jews during the Holocaust.
But Sonia Pressman Fuentes, a prominent American feminist, says de Foy was at best a xenophobe, and at worst an anti-Semite who blocked many Jews trying to flee Nazi Germany — including her own family.
The competing visions of de Foy — one of a Belgian official who risked his career, and possibly his life; the other of a xenophobe who blocked Jewish immigration to Belgium and who was responsible for deporting Jews fleeing the Nazis — underline the often hidden complexity of the “righteous” designation. Only rarely has Yad Vashem revoked the honor.
Fuentes said she was “stunned” when she learned that de Foy had been recognized as a Righteous Gentile. And she contacted Yad Vashem last September, requesting that de Foy’s name be removed from the list.
A Yad Vashem official told Fuentes that the center was already aware of questions surrounding de Foy’s status and had begun to gather documentation to review de Foy’s case.
Estee Yaari, a spokesman for Yad Vashem, told the Forward on January 3 that following Fuentes’s request, de Foy’s case would officially be resubmitted for examination by the Holocaust center’s Commission for the Designation of the Righteous.
The process could take several years.
Fuentes’s parents were Polish Jews who built up a successful clothing business in Berlin over many years. They fled to Belgium from Germany in 1933 after Hitler came to power.
Fuentes said she did not know de Foy’s name until last year, when, during a trip to Belgium, she met Frank Caestecker, a historian of immigration policy at the University of Ghent.
Caestecker showed Fuentes paperwork detailing how de Foy denied her family permission to remain in Belgium and how he recommended deporting them to Poland.
When Antwerp’s mayor, Camille Huysmans, refused to deport the family, de Foy ordered federal police to arrest them, Caestecker said. But the family escaped to the United States, where Fuentes went on to become an important founding figure in the feminist National Organization for Women.
Fuentes said she would not have opposed de Foy’s designation as a Righteous Gentile if her family had been de Foy’s only victims. But when she found out that de Foy had arrested, deported or blocked hundreds more Jewish refugees, she felt she had to speak up.
Caestecker said de Foy campaigned throughout his career for a strict immigration policy and vehemently opposed the Belgian-Jewish lobby because of its work to aid Jews fleeing Nazi Germany.
His evidence, submitted to Yad Vashem, includes documentation of de Foy’s xenophobic views.
It includes a file from 1926 — seven years before Hitler came to power — in which de Foy denounced Jews in Belgium seeking to help illegal Jewish immigrants as people “without scruples.”
LISTEN: Paul Berger discusses the case of Robert de Foy on the Reporters’ Roundtable