Hidden Belgium: Antwerp’s Jewish Quarter

Hidden Belgium: Antwerp’s Jewish Quarter

It looks drab and underwhelming, but Antwerp’s Jewish Quarter is home to a fascinating hidden community.

Located close to the magnificent Central Station, the neighbourhood is crammed into narrow streets such as Pelikaanstraat and Hovenierstraat. Here you find the city’s diamond dealers, along with kosher restaurants, specialised bookstores and bakeries selling delicious cheesecake.

The Jewish community in Antwerp goes back to the Middle Ages, when Jews were driven out of England, Spain and Portugal. They often worked in the diamond industry as other professions refused to admit them. The population in Antwerp quickly expanded in the 19th century as Jewish exiles arrived from Eastern Europe and again in the 1930s.

During the Nazi occupation, thousands of Jews were deported from Antwerp, but the Jewish Quarter next to the station didn’t disappear. After the war, the survivors returned to rebuild their community. Most made their living in the Antwerp diamond industry, which at one time represented about 50 percent of global diamond trade.

About 20,000 Jews now live in Antwerp. Some are strictly Orthodox while others are more relaxed. There are about 30 synagogues, along with Jewish schools, newspapers and charities. They no longer dominate the diamond industry, but they still live in the Pelikaanstraat neighbourhood.

Derek Blyth’s hidden secret of the day: Derek Blyth is the author of the bestselling “The 500 Hidden Secrets of Belgium”. He picks out one of his favourite hidden secrets for The Brussels Times every day.

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