December 19, 2002
Antwerp’s Diamonds, Jews Are Forever
The Jewish world in Antwerp is, in a certain way, closed.
If you own a diamond, you can be 80 percent sure it's been to Antwerp, Belgium, at some point in its life. Perhaps it was graded there in the heart of ancient Europe -- or ground, polished, valued, bought or sold there.
Diamonds might be everlasting, but there is another fascinating continuum in Antwerp. This becomes obvious immediately upon arrival at the city's Central Train Station. A unique feature of the city is the presence of a large Chasidic community, which is mainly located within the diamond district. There are between 15,000 and 20,000 Jewish citizens in Antwerp now, whereas before the Second World War, there were more than 55,000.
The Jewish presence in Antwerp is certainly not a new phenomenon. There have been three major immigration phases, beginning as early as the 13th century. At that time, Ashkenazi Jews moved from Central Europe to Antwerp and offered vital financial support in developing the Duchy of Brabant. The residents of the Duchy of Brabant, however, swiftly forgot their gratitude in the need for a scapegoat for the plague. Jews were blamed for the onset of the illness and, as a result, Brussels and Antwerp powers that be had them all killed or expelled.
At the end of the 15th century, the Catholic kings of Spain and Portugal saw fit to expel all Jews. This was the reason for the second wave of Jewish immigrants to Belgium. Many Marrono Jews from Portugal settled in Antwerp, but Emperor Charles V was not happy with this. He did his utmost to have them banned from the city, but the magistrate of Antwerp closed his eyes and let them continue to live and practice their trades secretly: this was not opportunistic, but a sign of respect for fellow human beings. Having said that, they had become essential to the financial development of Antwerp as the new world harbor ... keeping a low profile was order of the day and surely not too pleasant.
During the Age of Enlightenment in the 18th century, things became a little better, although extra taxes and the passing of a law stating that only the oldest son of a Jewish family could marry ensured that the Jewish community in Antwerp remained very small.
Emperor Joseph XI of Austria changed all this. Thanks to him and his Edict of Tolerance, Jews were again allowed to integrate completely in the social and economic life of all cities under Austrian rule -- of which Antwerp was one.
This integration was authenticated by the French Republic in 1791 and continued under Napoleon. Surprisingly, the Jewish group in Antwerp remained very small, (numbering only about 38 families) under the Dutch regime and even later, after Belgian independence.
The Central Consistory of Israelites in Belgium was founded in 1832, and continues to remain the officially recognized superior institution of the Jewish community in Belgium.
Things started to change after 1880 when a third immigration wave bolstered the Jewish presence in Antwerp. Many Eastern European Jews immigrated to escape the pogroms and settled in Antwerp where they found work in the diamond industry. By 1901, there were 8,000 Jewish inhabitants. By 1933, this number had risen to 55,000. This group of 55,000 no longer represented one Jewish way of living or one Jewish way of thinking. All the different political and religious views were proudly represented within its numbers.
The Nazis invaded the Benelux countries on May 10, 1940. As in other Nazi-occupied countries, many Jews "left in the night" and were transported to concentration camps. The Nazis, however, were often irritated to the extreme by the "soft" attitude of the Belgians toward the "Jewish Problem." Indeed, many Belgians saved Jewish children by hiding them wherever possible, sometimes even adopting them into their own families.
In 1993, the Jewish population of Antwerp relished the solidarity of the Antwerp people as documented by Flemish author Jan Walgrave in his article to commemorate the 26th World Diamond Congress. "The diamond world is a business for insiders and its basis, therefore, is in trust and tolerance and in moments of danger, in the solidarity of the whole world of the diamond."
Today, the Jewish world in Antwerp is, in a certain way, a closed world. The community is very visible but it is difficult for an outsider to gain access into the fascinating heirloom of this antique world. Ancient traditions are faithfully perpetuated. "The Scribe" works in a small office above a shop. This is an ancient and revered form of employment. He writes out religious texts by hand using a quill pen and special ink. Couples getting married, for example, often request handwritten passages from the Torah appropriate for weddings. The past is omnipresent and skills are handed down from parents to children: a hatter, a baker and a cobbler to name but a few. Every day in the synagogue, men and boys study and debate religious texts. Aged diamond merchants speak with passion about diamonds; each diamond is unique and they can decide on the qualities of each one with just a look.
Jewish and kosher shopping abounds. Anything from butchers to books, furs to falafel, watches to wigs. There are top-quality kosher restaurants.
The diamond business in Belgium is No. 1 in the worldwide rating and is Belgium's sixth largest export industry, so in recognition of this, Antwerp now proudly boasts a shiny new Diamond Museum. It is housed in a beautiful Art Nouveau building and cost the provincial government $5.12 million to develop. Buzzwords like "high tech" and "interactive" fly off the promotional flier like sparks from a diamond-cutter's drill.
After visiting Antwerp and returning to Brussels, or journeying on to London or Paris, one is left with the feeling that some things change too fast these days. But it is perhaps interesting to note that a cut diamond not only refracts, diffuses and reflects light, but also slows down its speed.
However, diamonds haven't slowed things down too much in Antwerp. A Web site, owned by Jewish Antwerp, aims at becoming the meeting place for all of the city's Jews, and for all those inside wishing to interact with them. A Web site is fine, but if you want to discuss something important, even confidential, it's just as easy to cross the street. This is the way things have always been in Antwerp's Jewish Quarter.