Ghent’s Holocaust memorial must be better respected

    Wednesday, 11 September 2019
    This is an opinion article by an external contributor. The views belong to the writer.
    The Michaëll Lustig monument in Ghent. Credit: Stad Ghent.

    As I walk from Gent-Sint-Pieters station to my apartment in the centre of the city, I am presented with the same sorry sight nearly every day, as I reach Lindenlei street. On the right is a small park and what I initially believed was some type of memorial, though I did not at first know exactly what for. I never really thought anything of it, until one morning I saw the memorial quiet and empty and decided to explore.

    Normally, the memorial plays host to groups of people, typically five or more, drinking, smoking, playing loud music and often sleeping. At times they will scream and shout at passersby, but this is a daily routine most have become accustomed to and so just ignore.

    An uncomfortable metaphor

    With it being empty and having some free time that day, I decided to go over to see what the memorial was for. What I found was not what I expected, but it did feel like an uncomfortable metaphor for the declining importance attached to the remembrance and significance of the Holocaust.

    The monument I had found on Lindenlei street was the monument to Michael Lusting, a Rabbi who was deported, and the other 67 Jews of Ghent who were victims of the Holocaust. Much of it was fenced off, with some graffiti also covering both its floor and the four small engraved columns of which it consists. In addition, much of the rest of it was covered in leaves, so it was hard to really know what it was intended to look like. I figured this could not have been its intended appearance and so decided to look further into it.

    Repeatedly damaged 

    The monument has been repeatedly vandalized and destroyed. What I had been viewing was simply what was left of it, after it had been repeatedly defaced and damaged. The last incident in 2018 appears to be one of the most shocking. It occurred on the eve of the commemoration of Kristallnacht, or night of the broken glass, a pogrom carried out against Jews by the Nazi paramilitary groups, whilst the Nazi government looked away. That November night in 1938 involved the destruction of 267 synagogues, the damage of 7,000 Jewish businesses and the deportation of 30,000 Jewish men to concentration camps.

    Every year Kristallnacht is remembered at this monument in Ghent. What a sad indictment, then, that what should have been a night of remembrance, about how far religious and racist persecution can go, should instead appear to have become a lightning rod for its very expression.

    Original monument  

    The original memorial consisted of several parts and was designed by artist Daniel Dutrieux. The main part is a celestial tree (Ailanthus Altissima) and a black granite tiled floor, that represents the shadow of the tree, with a copper piece in the centre that has a diameter of around two meters. The floor contains the star of David, as well as circular lines that suggest the rotation of the copper piece in the centre. The copper piece is supposed to be a dreidel, a square toy with which children play during Hanukkah. There is also a granite cube and three hard stone cubes facing this piece. The caption of these granite cubes is in Hebrew, but reads in English: “That is why I cry, flowing out of my eyes, tears …” (Lamentations 1:16). As well as this, there are the names of the Jews from Ghent who were deported, written on the side of the four columns. At least this is what it would have looked like initially.

    Current condition

    Now the dreidel is gone, having been damaged in 2018. The area around where the Dreidel should have been is also fenced off, with some graffiti. It is also clearly being used as a toilet, with an acrid sense of urine all around it. The columns themselves also have some graffiti and do not appear to have been cleaned for some time. The site, including the picnic bench which is situated close by, is also mainly used by groups drinking and partying loudly.

    Anti-semitism in Belgium and Europe

    What saddens me is that the current state of the monument is just a reminder of the broader climate of anti-semitism in Belgium and Europe. Nearly four years after the fatal attack on the Jewish museum in Brussels, killing four people, 39% of Jews in Belgium report that they have been harassed, many fearing to wear the kippa in public. In addition, 42% have considered emigrating. The report by the Centre for Equal Opportunities, UNIA, indicated that in 2018 the number of anti-Semitic incidents in Belgium had increased by 80%, with Belgium coming only behind France in a ranking of European countries with the most incidents of antisemitism.

    More recently at the annual Aalst carnival, a float depicted a vile caricature of a Jewish man, with a giant nose, sat upon heaps of gold, which he had apparently stolen from his fellow Belgians. When I posted an article with a caption about my shock at this incident on my Facebook profile, an acquaintance who worked promoting “diversity programs’’ for the UN commented on the post. He wrote “we have that problem too,” then a smiley face emoji. I asked what he meant, assuming he meant anti-Semitism, but he replied simply ‘’Jews’’. By the morning he had deleted it. What is so striking about this incident to me is how widespread and seemingly increasingly socially acceptable anti-Semitism is.

    I do not know the reason why it has not been repaired. I also understand the cost of its continued maintenance may be high, especially given such repeated acts of desecration. I do not want to criticize anyone currently involved in its repair or maintenance. I have reached out to the city to enquire about this. I am also happy to volunteer myself to go and work to clean up the spot, should it be needed.

    An important monument deserving respect

    What I do know, however, is how it makes me feel. I live only one street away from the monument. Every evening, therefore, I see people seemingly disrespecting what I believe to be a vitally important physical tribute. I see a spot that should be dedicated to remembering how far religious and anti-Semitic hatred can go, left vandalized and not maintained. I see what should be a culturally important place about how we must not allow myths about differences to be fostered by purveyors of hate, sat lonely and defaced. I want it to be a place people can go for remembrance and to show respect. I want it to be a place where the memory of such events can be correctly and appropriately reflected on, and I hope that in time it will be so.

    I hope that by this November when Kristallnacht will hopefully be remembered at this spot again, it will be in a better condition.

    Sam Jenkinson