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Decease of Maxime Steinberg, historian of the persecution of the Jews in Belgium

With the death of Maxime Steinberg on Monday 26 July 2010, we also bid farewell to the pioneer of the history of the Jewish drama in Belgium. He was born in Brussels on 13 December 1936, second child of Mendel Majer (Max) Sztejnberg and Ruchla Helman, originating from a Russian/Polish sjtetl. Like many of his contemporaries, father Sztejnberg broke early on with the traditionalism of his religious-orthodox family. He established himself as shoemaker in Brussels where he married in 1930.

Maxime Steinberg at the opening of the Belgian pavilion in Auschwitz 7 May 2006 (Photo : Jewish Museum of Deportation and Resistance).
Maxime Steinberg at the opening of the Belgian pavilion in Auschwitz 7 May 2006 (Photo : Jewish Museum of Deportation and Resistance).
During the Spanish Civil War, father Sztejnberg supported the republicans and raised funds to shelter Spanish children. Via father Sztejnberg's pre-war contacts in the fight against Franco, Maxime and his older brother Kolka were hidden with a working-class family in Walloon Brabant during the occupation and survived the war. Their parents were arrested and deported. Only his father survived. With great strength of will he resumed work. His goal was to give his sons a better social status through university studies.


Maxime Steinberg studied history at the ULB (Free University of Brussels). Traumatised by the war and because of his family background, he found structure in the Communist Party, but also a life as 'bon vivant' could offer solace. His initial interest in history lay on the left. In 1961 he graduated with a thesis on the foundation of the Belgian Worker's Party in 1885/1886.


He was devoted to his work. As a teacher in the official education network (1961-1999), his schedule was hectic. It gave him pride to find that among his pupils were numerous children of post-war immigrants. He was a talented and much appreciated teacher, who taught his pupils to think critically and who was gifted with a natural authority. He is also remembered as the teacher who entered the classroom carrying thermos flasks of coffee and cigarettes.


His historical research remained at first focused on the (extreme) left. Until the middle of the 1970s, Maxime Steinberg fitted the image of war victims who only after a lapse of time removed the “screen” against everything to do with the 'Endlösung'. Not having been able to say farewell to his deported mother, his child memories had been “blocked”, resulting in his disregard of the Judeocide. After some time, he started to specialise in the study of the Third Reich, but not until the end of the 1970s, “through the small loophole of the Jewish resistance”, would he also apply himself to the study of the 'Endlösung'. Historiography became an attempt to “control” the past and at the same time to “conjure” it.


Maxime Steinberg's interest in the persecution of the Jews was activated by external impulses: the publication in 1973 of the study of the French historian Lucien Steinberg Le Comité de Défense des Juifs en Belgique. 1942-1944 and also the research of the couple Serge and Beate Klarsfeld on the German SS-responsibles for the persecution of the Jews in Belgium, in particular Ernst Ehlers and Kurt Asche, who were for some time respectively head and Judenreferent of the Sipo-SD in Belgium and the North of France. Not all of the former Jewish resistance could identify with Lucien Steinberg's study. In 1975, the Union des Anciens Résistants Juifs asked Maxime Steinberg to start a new study, focusing on the Jewish communist resistance fighters.  This assignment was carried out at the same time as the study of the Klarsfelds. In the same year, Beate Klarsfeld had tracked down Kurt Asche. Consequently, a first meeting between Serge Klarsfeld and Maxime Steinberg took place and a collaboration was proposed.


Maxime Steinberg published his first findings on the resistance in 1979 in several short publications. He did not limit himself to the Jewish communist resistance, but also treated the Comité de Défense des Juifs in general and the non-Jewish helpers. In a nutshell, he presented a survey of the anti-Jewish politics of the occupier. More and more, he had reached the conclusion that the Jewish resistance was inextricably linked to a larger study of the persecution of the Jews in Belgium, a study which continued to gain importance.


This conclusion was strengthened by his participation as historical expert for the civil party in the trial against Kurt Asche in Kiel (1980-1981). Just before the trial, Ernst Ehlers had committed suicide. As expert, Maxime Steinberg assembled the basic material on the persecution of the Jews in Belgium. This resulted in two publications. Dossier Bruxelles-Auschwitz. La police SS et l'extermination des Juifs de Belgique (Brussels, 1980) gave for the first time minute details of the politics of the Judenabteilung of the Sipo-SD in Belgium. It also examined which facts could have been known about the judeocide during the occupation, a very important element in court. Statistics are given on the deportation and extermination of the 'Belgian Jews'. The second publication was a source publication in collaboration with Serge Klarsfeld, Die Endlösung der Judenfrage in Belgien. Dokumente (New York/Paris, [1980]). In 1982, Steinberg published, again with Klarsfeld, Le mémorial de la déportation des Juifs de Belgique (Brussel/New York), an alphabetical list of the approximately 25,000 Jews deported from Belgium to the 'East', including their date of birth, number of the convoy and a list of those who returned after the war or were able to escape, preceded by a history of the respective convoys. The publication also aimed at putting a stop to negationism and wanted to warn young people of the dangers of emerging neo-Nazism.


The Asche trial received a lot of media attention in all of Belgium, from the Jewish as well as the non-Jewish side. Maxime Steinberg's serene attitude made an impression in wide and varied ideological circles. Kurt Asche was finally convicted to seven years imprisonment.  Steinberg's merit lay in the fact that partly because of his expertise, a court for the first time recognised, described and convicted the judeocide on the Belgian Jews in its verdict. Also for the first time, a person is convicted for participation to murder on the Belgian Jews during the war. The post-war Belgian justice had so far only referred to 'arbitrary arrests' and had in general almost completely disregarded the aspect of the persecution of the Jews.


All of this led to the publication of Maxime Steinberg's three part magnum opus L'étoile et le fusil (Brussels, 1983-198[7]). With the last part of this trilogy Steinberg took his doctor's degree at the ULB. The publication revolutionised historiography on the persecution of the Jews in Belgium. In fact, up till then it did not exist. It was mostly limited to extenuating or amateurish publications and a few licentiate's theses. For the first time, an as comprehensive as possible history of the judeocide in Belgium was written describing the mechanisms of the 'Endlösung'. It is among others based on a study of thousands of individual files held by the Department of War Victims in Brussels. If the general opinion was still that the Jews had let themselves be slaughtered willingly, Steinberg once again emphasised the important role of the Jews in the Resistance. The title of his study, The star and the rifle, underlines this vision even more. He analysed in minute detail the steps taken by the Germans to further isolate the Jews and the devastating role which the 'policy of the lesser evil' of the Belgian authorities had played here. He analysed what he described as the 'xenophobic paradox of the Endlösung'. He described how the occupier had taken the xenophobia of the Belgian authorities into account in the execution of the 'Endlösung'. Steinberg did not conceive this xenophobia as a manifest, omnipresent hatred of aliens, but as the historical fact that the Belgian authorities did not feel responsible for the aliens who resided on the Belgian territory. Only when the Jews who had been naturalised as Belgians were concerned did a formal protest from the Belgian authorities follow. The responsibility of the Association of Jews in Belgium, founded by the occupier, was given due attention. But just as much did he do justice to the non-Jewish helpers.


Maxime Steinberg's trilogy came as a real bombshell in the francophone part of the country. For days, if not weeks, he received constant media attention on radio and television and in the papers. The comments were more than favourable. His meticulous, detached and serene work method was praised, as was his ability to enter into past events, averse from any anachronism. Although systematic research is still to be done, this media attention seemed mainly limited to francophone Belgium.


The attitude of the Belgian authorities (“the administrative collaboration”) and “bystanders” in general gained an ever more central place in Steinberg's later work. This resulted in 1998 in the publication Un pays occupé et ses juifs. Belgique entre France et Pays-Bas, which was in fact a compilation of previously published articles. Later, along the same lines and also emphasising the role of the Association of the Jews in Belgium which ostensibly had taken the “Jewish interests” at heart, followed La persécution des Juifs en Belgique (Brussels, 2004) for which he is given the Prix Condorcet-Aron du Livre.


With Laurence Schram he wrote a synthetic overview in the monumental study Mecheln-Auschwitz 1942-1944 (4 parts, Mechelen/Brussels, 2009). In 1990 was also published Les yeux du témoin et le regard du borgne. L'histoire face au révisionisme, Steinberg's response to the negationists who were all over the news in the 1980s and 1990s. Steinberg's persistent attention for the (Jewish) resistance also appears from two of his later, less elaborate studies: Otages de la terreur nazie. Le Bulgare Angheloff et son groupe de partisans juifs, 1940-1943 (Brussels/Mechelen, 2007) and Transport XX Malines-Auschwitz (Brussels/Mechelen, 2008) written respectively with José Gotovitch and Laurence Schram.


Maxime Steinberg could look back on a successful career. In 1982, he became associated professor at the Institut d'Etudes du Judaisme Martin Buber of the ULB. As an extension of his activities in this institute, he founded the Centre Européen sur la Shoah, l'Antisémitisme et le Génocide, of which he was director-general from 1994 to 2002. Indeed, he did not consider the judeocide to be an isolated phenomenon, but wanted to take into account the other genocides. He was particularly touched by the genocide on the Tutsi's and the moderate Hutu's in 1994 in Rwanda. In 2005, he was a 'context expert' in the second Rwanda trial before the Court of Assizes in Brussels. He also supported the actions in favour of the “sans-papiers” in his own country. In 1994, he was asked by the Minister of Education and Audiovisual Media of the French community to become advisor, a post he held till 2002. In this context he participated to Démocratie ou Barbarie, a project which fitted in with his own idea that the historian, as a citizen, has a role to play in society in the fight against the extreme right and racism.


From the start, he was involved in the activities of the Jewish Museum of Deportation and Resistance in Mechelen, founded in 1996, for which he designed the pedagogical and historical concept in 1995. He conducted guided tours in the museum, was a member of the scientific committee and the principal scientific advisor until the end of this life. Similarly, he was involved as a scenarist with the refurbishment of the Belgian pavilion in Auschwitz which was opened in 2006. From 2008, he was a member of the editorial committee that had to prepare the permanent exhibition for the new 'Holocaust museum' in Mechelen (Kazerne Dossin Memoriaal, Museum en Documentatiecentrum over Holocaust en Mensenrechten – Memorial, Museum and Documentation centre on Holocaust and Human Rights).


With the decease of Maxime Steinberg, we bid farewell to an eminent historian whose studies, in the typical heavy and layered style of thought and writing and the very individual classifications, will remain a reference for many more years and release a treasure of new information each time they are read. Young historians who met him saw a passionate, lucid man who was motivating, whose conversation was interesting and quick-witted, who enjoyed sharing his knowledge and spontaneously offered extra information. With his death, we lose an important humanist and an independent thinker, who greatly valued human rights and for whom only the truth, the precise facts, counted, even if to obtain it a few sacred cows had to be slaughtered.


Lieven Saerens


9 / 8 / 2010