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'Goto' is gone…

José Gotovitch at the Senate in 2019 to mark the 50th anniversary of CegeSoma/State Archives.

There are some people we tend to think of as eternally young, because they are so lively, so quick-witted and so full of a sacred fire .…

But sad reality has caught up with us. José Gotovitch, 'Goto', left us on 16 February 2024.

Born on 12 April 1940 in Brussels, José and his family escape racial deportation. Hidden away with his sister in the province of Namur, he returns to his neighborhood and his parents in 1944, and begins his schooling in Brussels. Driven by a youthful enthusiasm for "the great light coming from the East", he publishes his first book reviews in the Drapeau Rouge under the pseudonym Michel Rivière.

While studying history at the Université Libre de Bruxelles, he joins the Communist student circle and becomes a party member. His licentiate thesis on the censored press during World War I proves to be highly innovative, enabling him to explore the press as a source, as well as censorship and, above all, German archives. After graduating from university in 1961, he is a co-founder of the Union Nationale des Étudiants Communistes (National Union of Communist Students) and becomes its national secretary. He also classifies the communist party's archives and discovers personal files relating to the 1940-1945 period.
In 1962 -1963, he teaches at the Athénée d'Etterbeek, then does his military service. Next, he meets Jacques Willequet, historical advisor to the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and, incidentally, one of his former professors at ULB. The two men are not on the same political wavelength, but they like each other. It's time for his first article on 'La Légation d'Allemagne et le mouvement flamand entre 1867 et 1914', published in the Revue Belge de Philosophie et d'Histoire. Little does he know, it's only the first of many…

In 1964, aged 24, José Gotovitch joins the 'Centre National d'Histoire des deux Guerres mondiales'. With two young colleagues, he produces an inventory of the underground press from 1940 to 1944, and publishes extracts from SIPO-SD reports that he translated. He also writes a pioneering article on the history of deportation. And, not insignificantly, he launches a journal, the 'Cahiers d'Histoire de la Deuxième Guerre mondiale', of which only one issue goes to press in 1967.

But it's undoubtedly the book "L'an 40. La Belgique occupée", published in 1971 with Jules Gérard-Libois by the Editions du Crisp, which brings him into the public eye and establishes his reputation in the world of historians. The first edition sells out in a matter of days. With its 25,000 copies, it is the undisputed bestseller of Belgian historiography. The reputation of the book and its authors spreads beyond Belgium's borders. He is invited to appear on numerous television programs, although this is nothing new for him at the time. In fact, he already cooperated as historical advisor on the RTBF documentary series '1914-1918. Le Journal de la Grande Guerre' and the 'Télémémoires' series. He will continue to take part in numerous TV debates and in RTBF's famous 'Jours de Guerre' series.

In 1967, he is appointed assistant lecturer at the Université Libre de Bruxelles, a position he holds until 1988. He also teaches at the Institut Supérieur des Arts du Spectacle from 1973 to 1977.

At a press conference in 1973

Meanwhile, in 1967, the 'Centre National d'Histoire des deux Guerres mondiales' has become the Centre de Recherches et d'Etudes Historiques de la Seconde Guerre Mondiale, and its team has expanded. He takes part in the development of the brand-new institution, conducting numerous interviews - the Centre plays a pioneering role in oral history. He also contributes to the collection and inventory of numerous archives, helping to build up an exceptional collection of private archives. Official archives are not easily accessible. His research and publications are therefore often based on alternative sources collected from private individuals. In 1985, he travels to Moscow, where he helps discover the Belgian archives stolen by the German occupiers and secretly stored in the Russian capital since 1945.
Gradually, the institution grows and the historiography of the Second World War expands. José Gotovitch plays a major role in this. In 1988, he successfully completes his doctoral dissertation on the Communist Resistance and the Independence Front, under the supervision of Jean Stengers, whom he succeeds in teaching the contemporary history course, then the 'Enjeux et débat' course, at the ULB. His dissertation is published in 1992 under the title 'Du rouge au tricolore : Les communistes belges de 1939 à 1944. Un aspect de l'histoire de la Résistance en Belgique'.

In his office at the Résidence Palace in 1999

In 1989, he becomes director of the Centre, multiplying his contacts with the academic world in an eclectic way, while forging links with his French colleagues at the Institut d'Histoire du Temps Présent, playing an active role in the series of colloquia they organize under the generic title "La Résistance et les Français" (The Resistance and the French). One of these, "La Résistance et les Européens du Nord", is held in Brussels. Within the institution, his talents as a negotiator enable him to carry out the various projects with a sense of reality and moderation, combined with genuine respect for his intellectual partners. Within the institution, his negotiating skills enable him to  successfully carry out various projects with realism and moderation, combined with a genuine respect for his intellectual partners. Under his leadership, the Centre reaches full maturity. In 1997, its chronological framework is expanded and its structures adapted.

Writing the final editorial of the CEGES Bulletin '30-50 on the eve of his retirement in 2005, he recalls what this period within the institution has meant to him: "Forty years within the walls: an adventure, a collective creation, an often shared pleasure that led the small core of 1969 (a director, four researchers, a secretary, a clerk) to the small SME of more than thirty people that now runs [...] an exhilarating task that consisted in building an original scientific venue, which has become an obligatory and recognized point of passage for anyone interested in the history of 20th-century Belgium. A tool that often served, without the paternities always being recognized, as a model for a whole rich network of institutions born since then."  And he proudly adds: "Pioneer of oral history, of the preservation of private archives, creator of a multi-based documentation center including a state-of-the-art library, designer of a computer system that a number of Belgian centers are eagerly waiting to acquire, director of a series of first-rate doctorates, publisher of a journal that has won over its audience in these times of budgetary restrictions and shrinking markets; organizer of numerous study days and seminars, participant in many international symposia and projects; inspirer and promoter of the publication of numerous works with various publishers - the CEGES was and remains all this. It can pride itself on having been one of the main catalysts for contemporary studies in Belgium. "

New Year 2004 in Aviation Square

José Gotovitch shone far beyond Ceges. Generations of students remember the pleasure he took in teaching, and not only at ULB. In 1990, he was a visiting professor at Paris X Nanterre. He also held the prestigious Francqui Chair at the Facultés universitaires Notre-Dame de la Paix in Namur (1994-1995), not forgetting his many other commitments as administrator of Crisp, scientific director of the Centre des archives communistes en Belgique and founder, within the ULB Institute of Sociology, of the Centre d'histoire et de sociologie des gauches.

He also left an immense bibliography, from his first article in 1967 on " La Légation d'Allemagne et le mouvement flamand " (The German Legation and the Flemish movement) to his last work, published in 2023 and devoted to Jeunesses et étudiants communistes en Belgique (Communist Youth and Students in Belgium). In between, he published a whole range of works that have enriched the Belgian historiography of World War II, including the attitude of the Left under the Occupation, Belgium in London, the underground press, the Royal Question, Belgium and the Spanish War, and the many biographies he dedicated to labor activists.

He is the author of numerous scientific articles, as well as publications aimed at the general public, since he believed that the results of research should be transmitted, as shown by his countless appearances in the media, and by the Dictionnaire de la Seconde Guerre mondiale (Dictionary of the Second World War), which he edited with Paul Aron in 2008.

A festive farewell to the pension in 2005

To conclude, beyond the gratefulness we feel for having crossed and shared the path of a brilliant researcher, an outstanding orator, a renowned writer and an excellent teacher, we would like to express even more gratitude to the man we were able to rub shoulders with.
Whenever we evoke his name, it will be by remembering his sparkling, warm and sometimes somewhat mischievous gaze. It will be by remembering a captain, our captain, who fought against all odds to keep his ship and crew afloat and fulfil their missions.
It will be by remembering an endearing, humble personality, curious about everyone and everything, with a character all his own, who was able to pass on his passion and give positive impulses to his colleagues by valuing and trusting them - a priceless gift for many of us. 
It will be by remembering a man who at the dawn of the great journey had doubts about what he had been able to achieve, and shared them with great humility. A man who understood that, in the end, nothing is more important than being able to share life's simple pleasures with those you love. And he wanted to share that too.
Thank you José, thank you 'Goto'!