THREE QUESTIONS TO … Florence Matteazzi,
scientific collaborator on the research project 'The Belgian National Railway Company and the deportations during the Second World War'.
Florence, you joined CegeSoma in June 2022 to work on the 'SNCB' project, after having studied and taught history, worked in an archive for the city of La Louvière, and then managed the Tourist Office of the city of Soignies. Can you explain to us what the research project you are currently working on is comprised of and what kind of results it should lead to?
It is a historical investigation, carried out at the request of the Government, on the role played by the Belgian National Railway Company in the deportations of Jews, Gypsies, political prisoners and victims of forced labour during the Second World War. This investigation was entrusted to CegeSoma by the President of the Senate, the Deputy Prime Minister and Minister of Mobility. It is a kind of duty of remembrance that Belgium wished to undertake, like its Dutch and French neighbours.
My contribution to this inquiry is divided into two parts. The first part deals with the deportations of civilians during the Second World War and the importance of the SNCB's action in this respect, and the second part focuses on the resistance of the SNCB's senior civil servants and on the networks of resistance fighters that existed within the SNCB.
For the first part, I consulted the archives of the legal purge after WWII at the AGR1 and more specifically the personal files of railway workers convicted after the war for collaboration, notably those of certain senior officials. The interest here is to understand the various mechanisms that were set in motion. If, for example, a railway worker refused to obey an order, what was the administrative machinery that was set in motion? Would he lose his job? Would he be punished? Was there pressure at the level of the hierarchy to obey orders, even if it meant deporting civilians? In November 2023, the results of the investigation will be presented in the form of a report by Nico Wouters to the Senate, and depending on these results, there will be scientific and societal debates.
The second part of my work, focused on the resistance, will be the subject of an article in the Journal of Belgian History. The question is whether at the level of the top management, at the level of the general management and the eight departments that existed at the time at the SNCB, there was support for the resistance or not. There are known facts such as the attack on the 20th convoy in April '43, where, undoubtedly, if three young resistance fighters left Brussels by bicycle to be in the right place at the right time to attack this convoy, it is because they knew the time of the passage and the importance of the convoy. In this case, it is obvious that there were leaks of information and secret internal documents. I am trying to show who are the high officials who supported their agents and allowed these leaks of information to the resistance.
What do you think is the societal interest of this investigation broadly speaking?
About 7% of the employees of the SNCB were recognized as resistance fighters after the war, i.e. about 7,000 out of 100,000 staff members. It is important for today's society to emphasize the courage of these railway workers, who were constantly under surveillance by their German counterparts. Between 800 and 900 railway workers paid with their lives for their acts of resistance. Wartime collaboration was less than support for the resistance: there were 1,200 purge files. Now, there are a multitude of small gestures that the railway workers made and that we find in the testimonies but which are absolutely not quantifiable. How many train drivers slowed down enough at level crossings in the hope that some prisoners would succeed in jumping off at these points, where there was often a guard who could eventually serve as a relay and help them if necessary? How many railway workers hid envelopes of the resistance in the mail of the SNCB knowing that these bags would not be searched? How many of them gave their lunch boxes or water to prisoners? These are all acts of resistance because they were not allowed but they are very difficult to quantify.
In the course of your research, did you discover any files or archival documents that caught your eye?
Yes, something quite amusing but also quite risky ... The station of Saint-Ghislain-Hornu had found a trick to divert 90 tons of coal per week for the benefit of the social service that helped the railway workers during the war. When a convoy containing coal arrived, the technicians designated one or another wagon as 'defective' and put a label on it. These cars were diverted to the workshop. They would hastily unload some of the coal and hide it. The label was then removed, the wagons were put back into service ... and for them the 'repair' mission was accomplished in time, all with the complicity of some of their leaders.
And finally, let's get crazy ... if you were given a year, an unlimited budget and a team of researchers at your disposal, what aspects of the great conflicts of the 20th century would you dream of exploring?
I am very interested in social history, and particularly in the history of children who were affected by the events. I am particularly thinking of the children hidden during the war whose parents did not always return. For them, getting on with their lives must have been terrible. But I am also thinking of the children who were lucky enough to find their parents: for them it was also complicated to continue to live while wondering why someone wanted to deport and murder their innocent parents. This is a reflection that I heard a lot when I conducted interviews with the hidden children for my dissertation. I think that the children, future 'Aryan products', Lebensborn(*) children, must have had similar reflections: "Why was I born there? Was it for a political or economic purpose?" Some may have discovered their origins very late... Reconstructing oneself and living with weights such as these, are themes that really interest me a lot.
Thank you Florence for this exchange and good luck !
(*) A series of hostels, maternity hospitals and crèches set up under the aegis of Heinrich Himmler from 1935 as part of a "racial selection" program.