The Jewish Community of Ostend

A little history

Dixit Prof. dr. Baron Julien KLENER (° Ostend – 1939): former President of the Israelite Central Consistory of Belgium and professor of Hebrew, Judaism and comparative linguistics; rewarded with various honorary titles; publicist and gifted lecturer on Judaism, theology, moral and political sciences.
Prof. dr. Klener declares that: the history of the Jewish Community is also the history of the Jewish Community in West Flanders, because there is no certainty as to the presence of Jews in these regions in the Middle Ages. Despite the busy trade route between Cologne and London, there is no mention of Jews in this region.
Only in the 16th and 17th century is there a mention of ‘new Christians’ in Bruges. At the end of the Austrian occupation in 1781, it was reported that Ezekiel de Jongh and Salomon Mendes of Amsterdam and others applied for a residence permit in the city of Ostend. After much deliberation, this was allowed, subject to the presentation of some sort of “proof of good conduct”.

At the end of the 19th century, about 150 permanent Jewish residents were present in Ostend. During the summer season, this number increased to 2200 (mainly due to foreign visitors). Baron Gerson de Bleichroder, financial advisor to Bismarck, and the Prussian court made their residences available to the Jewish Community to celebrate the worship and to honor the feasts. Later, the young Belgian State also made land available at the Albertstraat, but despite an additional donation from a member of the Rothschild family, the entire project did not start. Instead, a small synagogue was installed in the royal palaces of Leopold II.
This must have been around 1890.

Prof. dr. J. Klener about “his” Ostend

The Professor remembers that there was a Jewish hotel on the Van Iseghemlaan called “Reisberg”. The Prof. dr. Julien Klener is lyrical about “his” Ostend. He was born and raised “on the spot” and when the undersigned suggests that the Ostend idiom is nothing more than a West Flemish dialect, he claims aloud that the Ostend idiom is a world language. They will be happy to hear that in Antwerp!
Prof. dr. Klener says: “My ancestors fled the pogroms of Eastern Europe at the time of the Belle Époque (a name for the period 1890-1914 of French history, invented during the First World War because then everything seemed so peaceful.) They probably settled with acquaintances.
Ostend Judaism prospered during the Belle Époque and gained official legal status in the early 20th century. It was good to live by the sea. “

“When night fell on Europe: cattle wagons transported our people from Ostend to the Polish night and the Dossin barracks in Mechelen as an intermediate stop – My family went through all this. Since I was born in 1939, I was too young to be recorded in the Jewish register.
“Since my parents were” Belgian “Jews, at first they were not troubled, and they left Ostend during that period to hide in Brussels and I was separated from my parents for security reasons. Family members were deported to Auschwitz, only a few came back. After the war my parents moved back to Ostend in 1946. I went to school, at the Athénée and later I went to the Ghent University.
And the Prof. dr. Klener continues: “The rich Jewish Community of Ostend was crushed coming out of World War Two. The Community suddenly had disappeared: immolated on the mysterious altar of human inhumanity and yet: after the horror, we noticed that the old Synagogue was still standing there, as a symbol between the past and the present and “to invite to a new beginning”!

Ostend today

Today, there are still 45 Jewish families living and working in Ostend. It is hard to call them regular visitors to the Synagogue, but they are always there at celebrations. In summer, there are of course many visitors from all around the world. Every day, the Synagogue is open for morning and evening prayers. On the Sabbath, the Synagogue is open all day.
The services officiant is Rabbi Armand Benizri, a very important man.
Many schools throughout the province of West Flanders also visit the Synagogue. Ostend is also included in “The Jewish Travel Guide”.

Jewish personalities

Many important Jewish artists / personalities stayed in Ostend or the surrounding area. Albert Einstein made important decisions in Den Haan. A story circulates that the great Einstein would have played the violin in the Synagogue … Carol Deutch belonged to the circle of the famous Ostend painter James Ensor. Felix Nusbaum wrote in the thirties many important plays in the seaside resort. Joseph Roth and Stefan Zweig also stayed in the city.
In 2000, a large exhibition took place in the Spanish galleries. It was a retrospective exhibition on the theme “Jewish Traces in Ostend”. An illustrated book with the same title has also been published. The book is still difficult to obtain for the moment, even if it is really worth it.
More than commendable efforts are made to reactivate the community life thanks to the Ostend families Kalter, Diaine, Klener, Legley -Wulfowicz, Shemmer, Podgorz, Muller, and the families on which our Community can always count, namely: Ben Izri, Vervaeren, Prys etc. who all help to keep alive the Synagogue and the traditions.