Kazerne Dossin, Mechelen
Site of a transit camp
set up by the Nazis
at a former military barracks; in addition to a memorial in the basement of the old barracks, a brand-new purpose-built museum about the Holocaust
and human rights in general opened opposite the former barracks in 2012. It is now Belgium
’s premier institution on these topics.
More background info:
The original military barracks complex dates back to a time when Mechelen was under Austrian
rule during the reign of Empress Maria Theresa, who ordered the construction of the building in 1756. This partly explains the austere angular architecture that is markedly different from the local Flemish style of buildings.
The barracks were used for military purposes, be it for stationing soldiers or as a weapons depot. It received the name Dossin in 1963, after a WW1
general who had played an important role in the Battle of the Yser
It remained in use by the Belgian military until the WWII
invasion of the country by Nazi Germany
in 1940. From August 1942, the SS
turned the barracks into a “Sammellager, i.e. a ‘collection camp’ or ‘transit camp’ (see also Drancy
) so for assembling and then dispatching primarily Jews but also a few hundred Roma and Sinti on deportation trains eastwards.
The location was chosen because it was on a main train line roughly halfway in between Antwerp and Brussels, where most Belgian Jews had lived. The fact that the rectangular structure with its expansive courtyard was conducive to assembling large numbers of people out of sight and sound to the outside played a part in the selection of this particular building complex.
Until the end of July 1944, almost 30 deportation trains left from here and took almost 26,000 victims to the east, especially to Auschwitz-Birkenau
, but also a few other camps
, where most of them were murdered in the gas chambers. Only about 1400 survived.
After WWII, Kazerne Dossin returned to serve the Belgian military from 1948 until 1975. After that, the complex was first abandoned and fell into dereliction but was then transferred to the city of Mechelen and declared a listed building. Most of the complex was converted into housing from 1980 onwards.
There had been a memorial plaque on a wall since 1948, but it wasn’t until 1995 that the precursor of today’s museum was opened inside the barracks, under the name “Joods Museum van Deportatie en Verzet” (‘Jewish Museum of Deportation and Resistance’).
Visitor numbers soon made it clear that larger premises were needed, and so plans began in 2001 for an all-new purpose-built museum outside the barracks. This finally opened in November 2012, while a few rooms at the barracks remained as a memorial space for contemplation.
I visited Mechelen in 2016, and the text below describes what I saw then. The Kazerne Dossin website mentions a remodelling of the memorial inside the former barracks, which reopened in January 2020. And photos on its website suggest that it does indeed look different now. The main museum, however, appears to be unchanged.
What there is to see:
The museum is housed in a striking modern four-storey building of quite an interesting design, which also continues inside. The atrium with the reception is light and airy. It is also here that you can watch a 12-minute introductory film. Moreover there are several multimedia stations where you can access extra information about the deportees and about Auschwitz
Downstairs in the basement is a cafe as well as lockers and a cloakroom. To reach the beginning of the permanent exhibition, you have to go to the first floor (the stairs with openings between each step are perhaps not ideal for vertigo sufferers, especially the higher up you get).
The main exhibition is subdivided into three main parts
, one each on floors 1-3. The first
one is entitled “Mass”
and includes aspects of mass group dynamics and the reliance of the Nazis
on mass rallies, mass media and propaganda. Also covered here is the history of Germany
from before WW1
to the rise of Nazism in the Weimar Republic, the rapidly tightening grip on the German populace once the Nazis were in power, book burning
and other expressions of ideological hate, and of course the onset of defamation and repression of the Jewish population (as well as other groups), the pogroms of 1938 and the beginning of WWII
. A special angle is that of Jewish life in Belgium
, anti-Semitism within Belgium, and Belgian Jews in hiding. Five witnesses gave interviews for the museum, and you can tap into these at various points on screens and/or through audio stations. At the far-end of the section is a wall of portrait photos of the deported, as far as these are available, so that the victims are given faces. An additional side-section looks at human rights today.
Generally there are few artefacts on display, mostly the exhibition has the form of text-and-photo/document panels dotted around on black, bookcase-like sections, that you move along in a zigzag concourse. There are also interactive screens. If you don’t want to read/view everything standing on your feet, you can make use of folding chairs that can be borrowed from various stations throughout the museum. All labels and explanatory texts are trilingual, in Flemish/Dutch, French and English, sometimes there is also German in addition, but not consistently.
The main exhibition continues on the second floor
with the broad theme “Fear”
. The style is visually similar to the first floor part, except that the concourse is now more structured as three successive “room”-like arrangements of panels and there’s a greater reliance on screens and audio guides (which are pooled in a box in the centre of the “room” from where they can be taken and have to be returned to). Content-wise this section focuses more on the situation in Belgium
during the occupation from 1940 to 1944 by Nazi Germany
, and especially the plight of the Belgian Jews. Jews’ strategies for fleeing, going into hiding and resistance are another focus. Again a wall of portrait photos comes at the far end, together with a side-section about discrimination and repression in other contexts. Another interactive screen provides examples of this, from segregation of African Americans in the USA
in South Africa
and the particularly dark legacy of Belgian colonialism and brutality in the Congo
On the third floor
follows the final of the three main themes of the museum, now it is “Death”
. You are greeted with a large blow-up photo of the ramp and gatehouse of Auschwitz-Birkenau
in golden evening light (always a sinister sight if you know what you’re looking at, but in this case it actually is an almost deceptively beautiful image). The systematic deportation and murder of Jews and others (including Roma and Sinti) by the Nazis is, unsurprisingly, the principal focus here. The particular case of the Kazerne Dossin is naturally a particular subtheme. A special case that deserves highlighting is the case of Transport 20 from Mechelen to Auschwitz: a small group of resistance fighters managed to stop that train before the German border by means of home-made signs; they then opened one of the carriages to free the inmates, while others managed to free themselves as well. That way 236 deportees got away. While some were shot by the guards and others later recaptured, 120 escaped and survived the war.
Other than the deportations and the Holocaust
, there are also side-sections about the T-4 “euthanasia” programme
, the ghettos, and mass executions. The culmination of the terror in the industrialized mass murder in the gas chambers of Auschwitz-Birkenau
is naturally a focus here too. There are a few typical artefacts on display here, such as striped concentration camp
clothes or a Zyklon-B
This section goes beyond the Nazi era and WWII and looks at the problems of living with the trauma afterwards, the dearth of judicial process against the perpetrators and the slow development of a culture of commemoration.
Again there’s a wall of portrait photos at the far end and an additional section looks at the topic of extermination in contexts other than the Holocaust, such as the genocides perpetrated against the Hereros in German South West Africa (today’s Namibia
) at the beginning of the 20th century, the Armenian
genocide of 1915, the Cambodian auto-genocide
, and the Rwandan genocide
This concludes the main permanent exhibition, but on the fourth floor there is a space for separate temporary exhibitions on regularly changing themes (you need an additional ticket for these, or a combination ticket – see below
). Also on the fourth floor is an open-air terrace affording a nice view over Mechelen at large and the former Dossin Barracks just opposite the museum.
After descending the stairs on the north side back to the atrium and exiting the museum you should also have a look at the memorial inside the former barracks just across the street. You could of course also go there beforehand, but it makes a bit more sense to add it on after you’ve learned about all the details of the deportations from here.
When I visited the memorial in 2016 it had a few exhibits on the ground floor, such as documents or toys, followed by an art installation on the theme of going into hiding, then in the basement vaults below there was another installation with black boxes, one each for each deportation transport from Mechelen, plus an arrangement of small screens with various individual victims’ names and transport number plus mostly passport photo reproductions.
This memorial has been reworked since and now also features an audio installation in which the names of the victims are also spoken and thus reverberate around the vaults. Apparently more artefacts and photos have also been added.
After visiting the memorial you can also have a look into the large courtyard. These days you wouldn’t think that anything sinister ever took place here. It now looks like a housing complex enclosing a small park. One wing of the complex houses the museum’s documentation centre, i.e. archives, which you can arrange to be allowed access to, but that’s mainly for research purposes.
Finally, by the wall between the ex-barracks and the museum parallel to the river an original rail carriage, a typical cattle car used in the deportations, has been put on display. It used to be outside the ex-barracks’ walls facing the river but must at some point (after my visit) have been moved here, going by photos on Google Maps.
All in all
, this is a very worthwhile site to visit, certainly the best of its type in Belgium
, but be aware that it is fairly demanding, so you have to bring stamina and concentration. But even if you are already familiar with the main topic of WWII
and the Holocaust
there is still plenty here that is particular to this place and the special Belgian angle. Another laudable aspect here is the way in which the main exhibition also takes in related issues prior to the Nazi era as well as subsequently, up to the present day. Recommended.
on the northern edge of the old city centre of Mechelen, Flanders, Belgium
; street address: Goswin de Stassartstraat 153, 2800 Mechelen.
Google Maps locators:
Access and costs: easy enough to find; the memorial is free, the museum charges an admission fee.
Details: You can get to Mechelen by train. From the main train station just outside the southern edge of the inner city centre it’s a ca. 25-30 minute walk north all through the centre. Closer by is the smaller station Mechelen-Nekkerspoel, from where it is less than a mile (1.2 km) along the river heading west.
If you’re coming by car, note that there is next to no parking by the museum, so you’d have to use parking lots such as Rode Kruisplein just beyond the north-western corner of the city centre. Or, if you’re staying overnight in Mechelen, make sure to pick an establishment that has private parking (that’s what I did).
Opening times: normally Thursday to Tuesday between 10 a.m. and 5 p.m., closed Wednesdays, on Christmas Day and on Jewish holidays.
Admission: the memorial is free of charge, the museum levies a 10 euros admission fee, with some concessions applying, for the main museum part, and an extra 9 euros for temporary exhibitions. A combination ticket for both is 16 euros.
Time required: The museum suggests between two and three hours, which seems about right.
Combinations with other dark destinations:
In general see under Belgium
The nearest other dark site, and one that is thematically related, is Fort Breendonk
, a less than 10-mile (15 km) drive by car from central Mechelen along the N16 route going west and than a short hop north on the A12 to exit 7, Breendonk.
You can also get there by train or bus from Mechelen station, bus “De Lijn” 287 (Mechelen - Boon) gets you closest to the fort, the bus stop is actually called “Fort van Breendonk”, while from the train station at Willebroek it’s a 20-minute walk (first south along Jozef Wautersstraat and then west along Dendermondsesteenweg and Rijksweg.
Combinations with non-dark destinations: Mechelen is a pleasant enough small city, whose compact centre can easily be explored on foot. It may not be quite as splendid as Bruges, Ghent or Antwerp, but it too has a pretty central square, Groote Markt, with typical Flemish grand architecture and just to the north-west a huge cathedral. Being less touristy than its more famous rivals makes it feel more authentic, in fact. It makes for a good base or overnight stop.
- Dossin 01 - former military barracks, now converted into housing
- Dossin 02 - purpose-built new memorial museum
- Dossin 03 - entrance to the museum
- Dossin 04 - intro film in the foyer
- Dossin 05 - permanent exhibition on the floors above
- Dossin 06 - lots of interactive screens
- Dossin 07 - folding stools you can borrow
- Dossin 08- memorial wall
- Dossin 09 - screen providing individual information
- Dossin 10 - artefacts
- Dossin 11 - people poisoner Hitler
- Dossin 12 - poison gas
- Dossin 13 - concentration camps section
- Dossin 14 - something is missing here
- Dossin 15 - additional exhibition on the top floor
- Dossin 16 - view from the top over Mechelen
- Dossin 17 - in the cellar of the old barracks
- Dossin 18 - art installation
- Dossin 19 - extra memorial room
- Dossin 20 - Jewish stars
- Dossin 21 - Mechelen city centre and cathedral
- Dossin 22 - narrow house
- Dossin 23 - city hall
- Dossin 24 - green water
- Dossin 25 - brewery