It was a quiet dinner party, a few friends, some family, even people I had never met before. It was a comfortable evening in a small Belgian suburb of Brussels where ideas were exchanged, experiences shared and discussions coming and going with no particular direction. It was a nice time, good food, impeccable wines bred from good taste, solid dependable upbringing, good breeding and decent schools.
Into this quiet and tranquil pond suddenly a large rock hit the surface and rippled out, and continues to ripple in my mind, three years later and an ocean and continent away.
As I recall, the conversation went from what does an American do when he returns to Belgium with his children, in my case I always took my daughter and son to Fort Breendonk between Antwerp, where I was brought up, and Brussels, the new capital of Europe. Breendonk was where the Germans assembled the Jewish population of Belgium before sending them east to Auschwitz, Bergen Belsen and other extermination areas. It is a place where political prisoners, resistance fighters and harmlessly insane people were sent to die. It is a small piece of a puzzle that all Americans should know about.
“But Peter that is such old history, why would you impose such horrors on your children?” asked one of the guests. “You have to understand the context, the times were different, the Jews owned everything and they were resented. It is no wonder that they were rounded up and killed.”
The year is 2008, the place Belgium, a small country. Belgium is a small country with a big heart that fought like tigers in the First World War, and put up a stronger resistance than their neighbors in France during the Second World War. And yet in this living room, a gentleman who was too young to have been in the war, a product of twelve years of Catholic upbringing by the Jesuits and university studies at one of the top Belgian Catholic schools calmly mouthed an explanation for one of humanity’s greatest crimes.
Being an invited guest and in the absence of any negative reaction from the rest of the guests I did not react at the time. Later I had the opportunity to revisit that moment with some of those who were present. They all agreed that it had been an appalling statement, and we all agreed that something should have been said or done, and yet none of us did.
This could be why, forty years after the holocaust, with Pol Pot, Tutsi, Darfur, Burma, Serbia and countless ongoing genocides, no one still has the nerve to just stand up and tell his friends and relatives that it was and is wrong to kill people. I certainly regret to this day not opening my mouth.