SAVE THE DATE! Cookies and Carols on December 10, 2017


On December 10, 2017 from 5pm until 7pm, former FAAB President Salomé Cisnal de Ugarté will host our annual Cookies and Carols event in Brussels to celebrate the upcoming holidays. This will give you a chance to mix and mingle with members of our Commission’s Board while getting into the holiday spirit. To attend, please email secretary@fulbright.be (before Dec 1) with the number of people you want to bring.

Eat And Meet With Belgian Deputy Prime Minister Alexander De Croo

On February 14th 2017, current and past Fulbright grantees met with Belgian Deputy Prime Minister and Minister of Development Cooperation, Digital Agenda, Telecom and Postal Services Alexander De Croo at his office in Brussels. After introductions, Mr. De Croo summarized his career, talked about his Fulbright experience, and focused on his current work in the changing world of development and the shift in the direction of today’s European political atmosphere.

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Discussion topics ranged from farming practices in Sub-Saharan Africa, to how the current US Administration will affect the future of European politics. The Fulbright Commission would like to thank Mr. De Croo for his hospitality and interesting conversation, and hope for more connections at future “Meet and Greets”!

Successful Fall Event in Mechelen

After living in Mechelen for a little over a month, I’ve managed to cover a lot of the tourist hotspots, but the human rights tour of Mechelen was something completely unqiue – even to people who have been living here for years. We got a chance to experience the city from a historical perspective, with parts of the tour reaching as far as far back as Saint Rumbold, the namesake of Mechelen’s largest and oldest cathedral.

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Our first stop was the town hall. The gate leading into the courtyard was once a prison. Our guide, Lisbette, explained that poor prisoners used to let down buckets on ropes and beg for food, while the wealthier ones enjoyed relative luxury.

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Inside the town hall we saw the city council room, where busts of past mayors line the back wall. Intricate carvings cover the room and tell the story of Charles Dessain, the mayor who risked his own life to protect Mechelen’s citizens from the Nazis during World War II. As a means of delaying the deportation of his constituents, Dessain contracted extensive woodwork and continued adding to it. Despite his best efforts, his constituents – and eventually Dessain himself – were deported, but Mechlinians today remember him as a hero.

 

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Immediately outside the town hall we found a statue of what appears to be a child bounced into the air on a blanket. In the past, while some criminals ended up in the tower, adulterers faced a peculiar sort of punishment that originated in Spain. Since divorce was illegal under Catholicism, unfaithful husbands were once publicly ridiculed in exactly this way. Now the tradition remains as a celebration of local culture and dolls are used instead of humans.

 

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In its more recent history, Mechelen has distinguished itself as an asylum for refugees coming from war-torn regions of the Middle East and Africa. Near the city center sits an artist’s rendition of a larger-than-life refugee constructed from remnants of rafts used by asylum seekers when making the treacherous voyage to Europe.

 

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At the center of Mechelen sits the Grote Markt (Big Market) – a large square encircled by bars, restaurants, quaint outdoor cafes and several local government buildings. One of the most well known gastronomical products of Mechelen (and my favorite Belgian beer) is Carolus. Lucky for me, our tour included a delicious lunch at the Carolus brewery, where the traditional Flemish stew proved a perfect antidote to the typically dreary October day. After enjoying a leisurely meal with grantees, alumni and university colleagues, we headed over to the Kazerne Dossin, which sheds light on a darker side of Mechelen’s history.

 

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The Kazerne Dossin, now a museum, was once a way station for Jewish people, gypsies, POW’s and anyone else making the unfortunate journey to Auschwitz. As we walked through the exhibits, we sat in rooms where the Nazis’ victims once awaited deportation. We listened as the names of the condemned trickled down one-by-one from overhead speakers. Other parts of the museum told of genocides perpetrated all over the world, from Cambodia to Rwanda and Armenia. It was a devastatingly powerful display of humanity’s darkest tendencies, as well as a tribute to the collective memory that seeks to prevent a repetition of such terror.

 

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Two days after this event, I happened upon a source of this collective memory. That day, I joined a neighbor for lunch and met her 90-year-old grandmother, who actually lived in Mechelen during the German occupation. Mama Pauline, as her grandchildren call her, has lived in Mechelen her whole life, but when I mentioned the Kazerne Dossin, she looked at me gravely and said she would never go there. Mama Pauline still remembers glimpsing the faces of the victims through the gaps in the fence as she walked past the Kazerne over seventy years ago. Many of the older people in Mechelen don’t speak English, but Mama Pauline surprised even her own family when, after a few minutes of translating between Dutch and English, she revealed that she could understand most of what I said. She brushed off her English and told me that she had learned while working for the British after the Nazis fled Belgium.

 

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Mechlinians have a long history in Europe, and they even have their own nickname: Maneblussers. According to legend, a man coming home from the bar one night saw the moon glowing through the windows of St. Rumbold’s Cathedral and, mistaking it for a fire, alerted the town. Their heroic attempt to extinguish the “fire” high up in the tower earned them the name “moon extinguishers.”

Learning about my new home – its history, its culture, its people – has been an incredible part of my Fulbright experience. Being a Francophile, I never pictured myself living in a Flemish town, learning Dutch, but sometimes the best experiences are the ones you never expected to have.

History of Human Rights in Mechelen

– Meghan Briggs 2016-2017 U.S. Fulbright grantee to Belgium

 

Fall Event: A History of Human Rights in Mechelen (October 22, 2016)

Join Fulbright alumni and current grantees in Mechelen on 22 October 2016 for a lesson in the history
of human rights. Event highlights include a walking tour of the city, a visit to the Kazerne Dossin, and
lunch at the Het Anker Brewery.

Event Schedule:

10:30 – Meet at Mechelen Tourist Office.
Participants arriving by car may choose to park at Thomas More University College at 10:15.
We will walk from the campus to downtown Mechelen.

Mechelen Tourist Office, Hallestraat 2-4-6.
The Tourist Office is a 15 minute walk from the Mechelen train station.

10:45 – Mechelen Human Rights Walking Tour
Get to know the city of Mechelen, with a focus on the lesser-known locations that have
played a role in the city’s human rights history.

Depart from Mechelen Tourist Office, Hallestraat 2-4-6.

1:00 – Lunch at Het Anker Brewery Enjoy a delicious lunch — complete with a traditional
Mechelen-brewed beer – at Het Anker Brewery in downtown Mechelen.

Het Anker – Guido Gezellelaan 49.

2:30 – Visit to the Kazerne Dossin: Memorial, Museum and Documentation Centre on
Holocaust and Human Rights During World War II, the Kazerne Dossin served as a detention
and deportation camp through which over 25,000 people were transported to Nazi concentration
camps. Today, the site serves as a memorial and museum. Our visit will begin with an
introduction by museum staff, followed by a visit of the museum at your leisure.

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The Kazerne Dossin is a 15-20 minute walk from ViaVia Mechelen.

5:30 – Drinks at the Grote Markt Finish up the day with a sample of one (or two!) of
Mechelen’s famous beers. (Optional: not included in the price mentioned below).

Cost: Cost for alumni and other guests: 45€. Current grantees do not need to pay,
as the Commission will cover their costs.

Once you have registered for the event, please make a bank transfer of 45 euros per participant
to the Belgian Fulbright Commission. Registration is not final until payment has been received.

Name: Commission for Educational Exchange between the U.S., Belgium & Luxembourg
Bank: CBC Banque
IBAN: BE79 7320 0561 4533
SWIFT/BIC: CREGBEBB
Message: ‘Human Rights Mechelen [and your first name/ last name]’

The Belgian Experience in WWI

“And so – goodnight. We go over the top at dawn.” So ends Private Walter Blythe’s last letter, a poignant, prophetic epistle penned just hours before his untimely death in the grisly Somme Offensive. To be sure, Walter is the stuff of fiction – he figures, dreamy-eyed and doomed, in Rilla of Ingleside, L. M. Montgomery’s mawkish but nonetheless moving novel of life on the Canadian home front during World War I – but it is to him that I owe my first brush with World War I history. I must have been about seven or eight years old when I received Rilla as a book-on-tape, and was jarred by the characters’ anguished discussions about the diabolical horrors of “the front”: mustard-gas and bayonets, bullets and shells – and, above all, the labyrinthine trenches, a morass of mud and muck. Even as I outgrew the novel itself, I retained a certain horrified fascination with World War I, or at least with its literary progeny, graduating from Walter Blythe to Brooke, Owen, Sassoon, Brittain. Yet while these writers offered me a glimpse into the Anglophone experience in World War I, I had only a hazy conception of the conflict’s sociocultural impact on the Continent. Once I arrived in Brussels, where every commune seems to have its own monument to local men “morts pour la patrie, 1914-18,” and street names frequently recall the days of the “Grande Guerre,” my ignorance began to seem particularly unpardonable. Small wonder, then, that I was delighted to hear that Dr. Karen Shelby, an art historian and Fulbright Belgium alumna (Ghent, autumn 2015), would be leading a day-trip dedicated to exploring, as luck would have it, “The Belgian Experience in World War I.” Our Saturday in West Flanders proved as informative and engaging as I had hoped; Dr. Shelby skillfully blended military history with analyses of the visual culture associated with the war and its aftermath. Below, I have shared a few photos and notes from our excursion.

1. We left Brussels a little past eight o’clock on Saturday morning and arrived some two hours later at the Oeren Military Cemetery, where 508 cement headstones rise in prim rows against the close-cropped grass. All the graves belong to Belgian soldiers killed in World War I, and nearly all the stones are precisely alike, with rounded tops and scrollwork down the sides. I say nearly all, as there are five exceptions – five headstones in the shape of Celtic crosses, with the letters “A-V-V-V-V-K” carved within the intersection. Why the difference? Dr. Shelby explained that the crosses and their five-lettered message represent the intertwining of the Great War and Flemish nationalism, and she then sketched out some of the history behind the design. Since Belgium’s formation in 1830, members of the Flemish community had chafed at the perceived denigration of their language and culture and the privileged status accorded to all things French. Such tensions were further exacerbated by Flanders’s distressing slide into rural poverty even as Wallonia reaped the rewards of flourishing mines and sizeable industrial investment from the central government. Out of these grievances was born the “Flemish movement,” which sought to have Dutch instated as an official language of Belgium and lobbied for the fostering and reinvigoration of Flemish culture. The Catholic Church within Flanders – a region generally more devout than Wallonia – played a key role in the movement, as priests in many small villages made a point of instructing local boys in Flemish history and literature. These questions of privilege and identity grew particularly urgent during World War I: it was whispered that Flemish troops were being placed under the command of officers who spoke only French, the language of the Belgian elite, and that the resultant misunderstandings were responsible for the slaughter of thousands of Flemish soldiers. Dr. Shelby stressed that such stories are mere myths, but they nonetheless served to galvanize the Flemish Movement and stoke the resentment of many Flemish troops against the Belgian government. The result was the “Front Movement,” a group of Flemish soldiers determined to see their language and culture accorded greater respect within the Belgian army (and Belgium itself).

This, then, is where the Celtic crosses come into play: whereas the vast majority of Belgian soldiers killed in the war were initially buried beneath simple wooden crosses bearing the inscription “[He] died for his country,” the leaders of the Flemish Movement were eager to emphasize that their members had not died for Belgium as a whole, with its Francophilic central government and officers (allegedly) too supercilious to speak Flemish to their troops. Rather, the men were to be seen as martyrs for the cherished cause of Flemish nationalism. To that end, soldier/artist Joe English designed special headstones intended solely for fallen Flemish soldiers who had supported the Movement (though, as Dr. Shelby explained, such stones were granted at the request of a soldier’s family or friends, regardless of whether the man in question had ever been an enthusiastic Flemish nationalist). A Celtic cross, a traditional Irish symbol of martyrdom, was paired with the aforementioned cluster of letters – “AVVVVK,” which stands for “Alles voor Vlaanderen; Vlaanderen voor Kristus” (“All for Flanders; Flanders for Christ”). As might be expected, the new stones were not warmly received by French-speaking Belgians, and in some instances, vandals even painted out the “AVVVVK.” In the years after the war, the Belgian government went about “upgrading” the markers on its soldiers’ graves, replacing the temporary wooden crosses with cement headstones like those we saw at Oeren; at this time, the families of some of the men buried beneath Celtic crosses asked to have English’s politicized creation swapped for the standard, government-issued stone. This, then, explains why only five Celtic crosses, tall and defiant, remain at Oeren today.

Dr. Shelby discusses the difference between the headstones at the Oeren Military Cemetery; her hand is resting on one of Joe English's Celtic crosses (note the

Caption: Dr. Shelby discusses the difference between the headstones at the Oeren Military Cemetery; her hand is resting on one of Joe English’s Celtic crosses (note the “AVV VVK” at the center.

Standard, government-issued headstone (not a Celtic cross); the soldier's identity is unknown. Note the inscription,

Caption: Standard, government-issued headstone (not a Celtic cross); the soldier’s identity is unknown. Note the inscription, “[He] died for his country” – in sharp contrast to the “AVV-VVK” on the Celtic crosses.

2. Our next stop was the “Dodengang” (“Trench of Death”), a mock trench built very near the site of the Battle of the IJzer (October 1914). Dr. Shelby explained that the battle represented Belgium’s last, frantic attempt prevent further advances by the Germans – who already occupied much of the country, Brussels included. For weeks, the two armies struggled fiercely, while the near-incessant rain rendered the trenches cold and muddy. At last, as German forces seemed on the verge of crossing the IJzer River and wresting the last remaining chunk of unoccupied territory, Belgium played its final card: opening the IJzer’s floodgates. Over the next few days, the surrounding plain was gradually submerged, and, as the Belgians had hoped, the Germans found it impossible to continue their whirlwind advance. Though fighting along the IJzer and other parts of Belgium (notably Ypres) would continue until 1918, this particular chapter – with its dramatic final flourish – boosted Belgian morale in the grim first months of the war and to this day is still recalled with pride.

As we threaded our way through the narrow trenches, the blue sky and bucolic landscape belied the region’s grisly past. Dr. Shelby urged us to envision the area as it must have looked in October 1914 – the IJzer swollen and churning, trenches inundated, surrounding fields converted to treacherous bogs, civilians fleeing their flooded homes – but I, for one, found this difficult: the surrounding countryside, now so lush and tranquil, seemed incompatible with an episode of such panic and despair.

The walls of the Dodengang trenches can be seen at left; at right, the placed IJzer River.

Caption: The walls of the Dodengang trenches can be seen at left; at right, the placed IJzer River.

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Caption: Fulbrighters at the Dodengang. The pile of cement “bags” to the right is meant to represent the sandbags originally used to bolster the trench walls.

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Caption: A tunnel at the Dodengang

3. We ended our day at the IJzertoren (“IJzer tower”), a mammoth monument to Belgian’s World War I dead (particularly its Flemish victims). Twenty-two stories high and built of imposing grey-brown brick, the tower looms over the landscape; its cruciform shape and the massive lettering at the top – yet again, “AVVVVK” – link the monument unequivocally to the Flemish Movement, with its close ties to the Catholic Church and its narrative of injustice, sacrifice, and martyrdom. It is hardly surprising, then, that the memorial’s history is fraught with controversy and contention – indeed, today’s tower is really IJzertoren 2.0, since the original monument met with an unlikely end. Dr. Shelby explained that the first tower was built shortly after World War I, in tribute to the thousands of Flemish dead; over the following years, several soldiers closely associated with the Flemish Movement/Front Movement (including Joe English) were buried in the tower crypt, and the monument soon became a pilgrimage site for bereaved Flemish families. Its provocative “All for Flanders” message notwithstanding, the tower was largely viewed as an innocuous symbol of grief and human suffering. Not so after World War II: during the conflict, the Nazis attempted to coax Flanders into splitting away from Wallonia (and, presumably, allying itself with Germany instead, as Flanders was considered part of “Greater Germany”). Though such a division never took place, German appeals to longstanding cultural grievances struck a chord among some in the Flemish community (passionate nationalists in particular), and a measure of “big-C Collaboration,” as Dr. Shelby put it, ensued. In the wake of the conflict, many Belgians were infuriated by reports of such collusion, and the Flemish nationalist movement was regarded with renewed suspicion and resentment. One night in March 1946, those sentiments at last found vent in the dynamiting of the IJzertoren. The perpetrators went unpunished, and it seems likely that the Belgian government tacitly supported their handiwork.

The tower we visited, then, was built in the 1950s-60s, and is even taller than its predecessor. Material from the original tower was used to construct a “Pax Gate” (“Gate of Peace”); the gate’s pacifist message is echoed throughout the multistory museum housed the new tower. Though our time in the museum was limited, the exhibits – which dealt with wartime propaganda, life in the trenches, uniforms, and weaponry, among many other topics – offered a powerful reminder of the war’s horrific scale. Our tour ended at Henry Luyten’s The Golden Painting of Flanders, an enormous painting displayed on the museum’s first floor. This somewhat perplexing work – Dr. Shelby herself laughingly acknowledged that it is “very weird” – is modeled after traditional “descent from the cross” paintings, but here key players in Flemish history have replaced the customary Biblical figures. The result is an unsettling dialogue between past and present: Luyten, painting in the 1930s-40s, presented a hodgepodge of contemporary public figures, among them nationalists and Collaborators, alongside beloved and decidedly uncontroversial native sons – Rubens, Erasmus, Rembrandt. An unusual painting, indeed, and one that pays tribute to the vexing questions of identity and autonomy that are inextricably bound up in Belgium’s World War I ordeal. Given my own interest in the effect of World War I on art and literature, I found this final portion of the itinerary especially intriguing: the painting, in spite of – or perhaps because of – its oddness, captures with remarkable efficacy the war’s complex ramifications for Belgian society. What better way to end a fascinating and thought-provoking Saturday?

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Caption: The Pax Gate, as seen from the topmost floor of the IJzertoren.

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Caption: WWI nurses’ uniforms on display at the museum within the IJzertoren.

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Caption: Dr. Shelby discusses Luyten’s “The Golden Painting of Flanders”

 

Author: Pari Jafari, 2015-2016 U.S. Fulbright grantee to Belgium

More photos of the event: https://www.flickr.com/photos/fulbrightbelgium/albums/72157667459999781