Brussels — As the sister of Belgium’s most powerful Nazi, Madeleine Cornet knew better than to inquire about the ethnicity of the three women she hired as housemaids in October 1942.
Cornet did not want to further implicate herself by hearing what she already knew: Her new hires were Jews who managed to escape the deportations that her brother, the Belgian politician and Nazi collaborator Leon Degrelle, was busy organizing.
The unlikely story of Cornet and her husband, Henry, was unearthed only a few months ago among a wave of articles in the Belgian media last year dealing with the country’s role in the Holocaust. The sudden focus on Belgium’s Holocaust history reflects the country’s belated reckoning with its complicity in the deaths of 28,902 Belgian Jews during World War II.
In the last year, Begium opened its first Holocaust museum and, for the first time, acknowledged its role in the persecution of its Jewish citizens. It began in August, when the mayor of Antwerp admitted the country’s Holocaust-era guilt, initiating a string of mea culpas by his Brussels counterpart and the leaders of several other municipalities and culminating with a statement from the prime minister himself.
“We must have the courage to look at the truth: There was steady participation by the Belgian state authorities in the persecution of Jews,” Prime Minister Elio Di Rupo said at a memorial ceremony in Mechelen, the point from which more than one-third of Belgium’s Jewish population of approximately 66,000 was sent to Auschwitz, according to Yad Vashem, Israel’s national Holocaust museum in Jerusalem.
This month, a committee of the Belgian Senate endorsed a watered-down version of his words, noting only that “some Belgian authorities” helped deport the Jews.
The formal admissions of guilt have come late by Western European standards. Austria acknowledged its culpability in 1993; France and the Netherlands followed suit two years later.
“I think the delay owed in part to tensions between Belgium’s two parts, the Flemish-speaking Flanders region and the French-speaking Wallonian region,” said Guido Joris, an editor of Joods Actueel, the Antwerp-based weekly that published the Cornets’ story for the first time. “These differences meant it took a long time to arrive at a consensus.”
Indeed, even mundane decisions such as building a new university or hospital often lead to recriminations between the distrustful representatives of the country’s two ethnic groups, the Flemish and the Walloons, who occupy three autonomous regions that make up a brittle federal entity the size of Maryland.