We had spent the morning walking around Antwerp and then, after lunch on the ship, Trevor and I decided to go back to visit the MAS (Museum aan de Stroom).
We could see the building, which was a fascinating shape, from the ship but it would have been a long walk in the rain, so we took the bus which was travelling back and forth to town for passengers who had chosen to stay in town and return to the ship during the afternoon. Before going into detail about the Museum I thought that it would be interesting to give a bit of history for Antwerp as this will, to a degree, give some understanding as to why this Museum is here.
Although Brussels is the official capital of Flanders, a county, a region and a language area of Belgium, Antwerp is considered the unofficial capital. Flanders was one of the wealthiest and most urbanised areas of the continent in the Middle Ages. Antwerp is considered by many to be the heart and soul of Flemish culture. By the 13th century Antwerp was already a major port and trading centre, growing rich from the sugar and wool trades. It is also well known in the diamond industry with the 1st diamond being cut here in 1476 and today it is the “Diamond Capital of the World” with 40% of the world trade.
During WWI Antwerp was besieged from August 1914 until the end of the war 4 years later. A month prior to our visit, a new display had been created of Antwerp at war and showed photos and artefacts from this siege.
In WWII though, they were much harder hit because, within 3 months of Germany taking over Belgium in 1940, the anti-Jewish measures began and grew worse all the time. In the beginning ritual slaughter and other religious rites were prohibited. Within a year Jews were denied entry to many professions and soon thereafter their land was confiscated. Probably the worst began in September 1942 when thousands of the 100 000 Jews in Belgium, half of whom were in Antwerp, were sent to Concentration Camps, very few of whom returned.
With this knowledge it is easy to understand why the MAS was developed and has become very popular. It is what I term a personal museum, as most of the items on display have been donated by families of Antwerp. In addition, there is a large collection of valuable personal items which, those Jews who were taken to concentration camps, were wearing or carrying at the time. Over 18 000 of theses have been found, of which 800 have been returned to family members 18 of whom were in Belgium. Some things are in the cabinets on display and there are commentaries on how the MAS employees do the searching for families of the victims. As one comment said, “It is both rewarding and heart-breaking.” The whole connection is known as the Arolsen Archives. As the photos taken through the glass were no good, I decided to give you the stories instead.
Many of the displays can be visited free of charge with many having to be viewed through glass making taking photographs a bit difficult, even though it is permitted. Families and individuals have donated many wonderful things dating back hundreds of years. There was a rocking chair that Mrs ?? had sat in for almost 50 years in the 1700s, a child’s highchair which had been made by her father in the 16th century and some delightful kitchen gadgets from various times. Some looked downright peculiar.
We travelled by escalator all the way to the 10th floor and came to our first and only disappointment of the visit. This top floor was an open one and it was pouring with rain, so we were unable to go out and admire the view of the city and the harbour. Out on the rooftop were models of a saluting admiral couple.
On the sides of each escalator were stories related to different parts of Antwerp or its activities. Students are encouraged to come to the Museum and study as well, so it is very much a people of Antwerp place. We loved it and were surprised to learn that we were the only ones from the ship who had visited it.
As we walked back to the ship we stopped at a local supermarket and bought a couple of slabs of Belgian chocolate including some sugar-free. We spent that night on the ship and then took a train to Amsterdam airport from where we took a plane to visit family in Portugal.