ANTWERP | Traveling exhibition #StolenMemory at Museum At the Stream (MAS)

Watches, jewellery, family photos, intimate trinkets: these are the (often last) belongings of concentration camp prisoners that were taken away by the German occupant during World War II when they were arrested. Arolsen Archives, the International Center on Nazi Persecution, still holds some 2,500 of those ‘personal securities’ and is seeking next of kin of the original owners. Their traveling ehibition #StolenMemory is now on display the Museum Aan de Stroom (Museum At the Stream, MAS) from 4 May. 

The opening of the exhibition is extra special because Arolsen Archives will also return lost items to two Antwerp families.

The #StolenMemory container tells the poignant stories of ten deported prisoners, their stolen possessions, and the relentless search for their families. 

After a tour through several European countries, the expo now has a stop at the MAS. The tour is one of the ways in which Arolsen Archives continues to search for the rightful heirs of those valuable personal items. 

Since the start of #StolenMemory, more than 700 families of victims of Nazi persecution have been found, 18 of them in Belgium. For our country, a handful of ‘cold cases’ remain in the ‘personal effects’ collection. Still, the quest continues unabated.

Also in Antwerp, after a lot of research, two families of concentration camp prisoners whose personal belongings are kept in the Arolsen Archives have been found. 

It concerns the watch of René Vandelsen from Ghent, who died in the Neuengamme concentration camp. And the watch of the Antwerp resistance fighter René De Herdt, who survived imprisonment in Breendonk and Neuengamme and was eventually able to return to Antwerp. The valuable personal items was handed over to the family during the opening.

Authentic pieces for the first time

The MAS and Arolsen Archives complement this traveling expo with small but powerful presentations for the first time. In the last room of the Kijkdepot on the second floor, a collection of original repatriated items from ten Belgian concentration camp prisoners can be viewed, including 4 displaced items that Arolsen Archives hopes to return to Belgian families.

It is the first time that so many objects from the collection of Arolsen Archives can be seen in one room – almost all Belgian ‘effects’ are represented, together with the staggering stories of eighteen Belgian victims of Nazi persecution whose possessions the archive has preserved.

Rings, a fountain pen, a watch, photos,… All very personally charged objects, which tell the gripping story of the people to whom they once belonged. For some, it was their very last possessions before they died. The pieces make the story of #StolenMemory extra tangible. 

Arolsen Archives maintains the world’s largest archive of the Nazi persecution, containing documentary information on 17.5 million individuals and part of UNESCO‘s Memory of the World. An impressive list of names of more than 18,000 Antwerp residents, of whom Arolsen Archives keeps documents, shows how tangible WW II was in this city.

City at war

The small but captivating presentation in the Kijkdepot and the traveling exhibition #StolenMemory set the tone for the MAS for the autumn. 

On 8 September 2023, the museum will open a new permanent exhibition ‘City at war. Antwerp 1940-1945.’ It shows the impact of WW II on the city and its inhabitants.

The exhibition #StolenMemory and the presentation in the Kijkdepot can both be viewed free of charge from 5 May to 21 May next to and in the MAS. 

Both projects are part of the program of ‘Antwerp Herdenkt‘, an initiative of the city of Antwerp that emphasizes the importance of our basic democratic values of freedom and equality by keeping the memory of WW II alive.

The story of René De Herdt

René De Herdt was born in Antwerp on 27 August 1919. During the war he is an explosives expert in the resistance, but he is betrayed at one point.

He chooses to voluntarily surrender himself to the German occupiers in order to save his family. He is sentenced to death. After being locked up in the Begijnenstraat prison, he is sent to Fort Breendonk. A tough period in which René suffers hard.

When the Allies advance on Brussels in 1944, he and other political prisoners are deported to the Neuengamme concentration camp. He is transferred to the outer camp of Wilhelmshaven, where he has to do hard labor in a shipyard of the German navy. 

At the beginning of April 1945, the SS evacuated the camp and a long death march to the overcrowded Sandbostel relief camp began. On the way, René suffers a concussion and his comrades have to support him. Thanks to them, he arrives in Sandbostel on April 18. In those last weeks, more than 3,000 prisoners died there from deprivation or from a typhus epidemic. But René survives and a few weeks later the British army liberates the camp.

René returns to Belgium, where he receives several medals and awards for his courage and services rendered. He lives on the Kiel in Antwerp and travels around the world. His son honors his father by becoming a para commando himself. 

René dies in 1999. He is buried at the Schoonselhof.

The story of René Vandelsen

René Vandelsen was born on 2 May 1921 in Ghent. He lived with his mother Cesarina Van den Eede, who divorced her husband Jozef Vandelsen in 1936.

Mother and son lived in Antwerp before René left for Liège, where he worked as a waiter. In 1940 he finally settled in Brussels. As far as is known, he had no wife or children. 

On April 28, 1944, the Nazis arrested René because he had fled Germany, where he had worked as a laborer. Because of his refusal to work, he was deported to Neuengamme concentration camp, where he was given prisoner number 59343. René Vandelsen died there on 12 January 12 of heart failure. The exact circumstances of his imprisonment and death are unknown.

After the war, Cesarina submitted a formal request to have her son recognized posthumously as a political prisoner by the Belgian Ministry of Reconstruction. On the grounds that René had initially gone to Germany voluntarily, her repeated requests were rejected.

Cesarina eventually remarried. Her brother Desiré Van den Eede, who ran a shop in Antwerp, was her best man at the wedding, as he had been at her first marriage to Jozef Vandelsen. It is through her close relationship with Desiré that the Arolsen Archives research team managed to locate René Vandelsen’s relatives.

Art and museums in Antwerp

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