Belgian Railway Earned Millions for Holocaust Trains, Report Finds

The Belgian national railway company earned the equivalent of millions of dollars for deporting nearly 25,000 Jews and Roma, as well as forced laborers and members of the resistance, to Nazi concentration camps during World War II, a report has found.

From 1942 to 1944, the Belgian railway sent 28 trains carrying 25,843 Jews and Roma people to Auschwitz; most were killed on arrival and only 1,195 survived, according to the report, which was compiled by a war research center attached to the State Archives of Belgium.

Doing the bidding of the Nazis, the railway also sent more than 16,000 political prisoners to camps and prisons such as Buchenwald, the report found. It noted that the rail company had been paid 51 million Belgian francs for the transports, equivalent to several million dollars today.

“The fact that the national railway company was responsible for the deportations of Jews and Roma and also other victim groups was something we already knew, but our knowledge was very superficial,” said Nico Wouters, the author of the report and the director of the war research center. “There was no in-depth investigation into the how or why, the context, or if there was any protest. We now have the full story.”

The report was commissioned by Belgium’s Senate, the upper house of the country’s Parliament, in 2022. The findings were presented on Dec. 8.

The railway, known by its French initials, S.N.C.B., was established in 1926. It functioned as a “semi-governmental” autonomous company, though its main client was the Belgian state. During World War II it continued to operate autonomously while Belgium was occupied by the Nazis.

In a written statement, the company said, “The S.N.C.B. has always fully subscribed to ensuring that all light can be shed on the role of the Belgian railways at the time in the deportations.” The railway “will now take note of the study and follow up,” the company added, though it did not immediately say what further action might be taken.

A spokesman for the S.N.C.B., Dimitri Temmerman, said that the company first handed over historical records to the war research center in 2003, after the Senate requested an investigation into the role of the Belgian authorities in the persecution of Jews during the German occupation.

The resulting report, issued in 2007 and titled “La Belgique Docile,” or “Willing Belgium,” found that state agencies had been more complicit with the occupying Nazis than previously thought. But that report had only a single chapter on the role of the national railway in the deportations.

Mr. Wouters said that the new report was focused on the rail company. “Now we have seen all the sources, we understand the financial aspects, and there is no longer any ambiguity or any doubt about responsibility,” he said. “I think this can be a turning point, because the facts can no longer be ignored by the policymakers and the railway company itself.”

Mr. Wouters said that he had studied the “special trains” that operated outside the regular Belgian transport network and that were used specifically for Nazi purposes. They included 28 deportation trains, as well as trains used by high-ranking Nazi officials when they were traveling in Belgium.

The report found no evidence of protests by any Belgian rail staff members about the trains being used for deportations.

“No one asked the question, Should we do this or is this morally or legally acceptable?” Mr. Wouters said. “It was never discussed before the board of directors. There’s really a general sense that the deportation trains were unavoidable. Nobody asks any questions, and there is no protest, no complaints.”

Belgium is one of a few Western European countries that have tried to come to terms with the role their national railways played in mass deportations carried out for the Nazis during World War II.

In 2011, the French state railway formally apologized to Holocaust victims for its role in deporting about 76,000 European Jews to the French-German border in 76 cattle cars, from 1941 to 1944. From the border, they were mostly transported to Nazi camps in German-held territories, where they were killed.

The French apology came after years of litigation by American survivors of the Holocaust and by their descendants. In 2014, France gave the United States $60 million for reparations to distribute to victims and their heirs.

The Dutch national railway has also acknowledged its role in transporting Jews and Roma to their deaths. In 2019, it pledged to set aside tens of millions of euros in compensation for victims and their direct descendants.

Research published in 2012 found that 112 Dutch trains traveled from the Netherlands to nine Nazi camps in countries including Germany, Austria and Poland from June 1942 to August 1944.

Gideon Taylor, the president of the World Jewish Restitution Organization, which advocates compensation for Holocaust victims, said that the Belgian report was part of a larger effort by Western European governments to reckon with a dark history.

“The fact that it was commissioned by the Parliament is very important,” Mr. Taylor said. “It’s a sign that this is something that Belgium wants to address.”

“The trains are a very powerful symbol of the Holocaust,” he added. “Understanding what happened with the train companies gives us perspective that goes beyond numbers of people and facts. That makes transparency about their role very important.”