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The history of the Jewish community of Ostend is more or less tantamount to that of the Jewish community of West Flanders.  Ostend (Oostende/Ostende) was effectively the only place in this province where Jews organized their own genuine, recognized community prior to the end of the 20th century, with the exception of the recent developments in Knokke-Het Zoute.  There is no certainty as to the Jewish presence in the County of Flanders in the Middle Ages, although Brugge was on the trade route linking Cologne and London in the 12th and 13th centuries, and both these cities had Jewish populations.  The density of the steady stream of traders between England and the Rhine Valley was, however, sufficient cause for Jews to pass through Brugge from time to time.  However, no tangible proof that a Jewish community lived in this town has been found to date.  Then came the Burgundian and Spanish periods, but once again without any traces of Jewish communities in West Flanders.  It is possible that a certain number of conversos or “new Christians” (such as the humanist Luis Vives) stayed in Brugge in the 16th and 17th centuries, but we still have no clear proof of this.

The situation became a little clearer at the end of the Austrian occupation, for as of 1781 Ezechiel de Jongh and Salomon Mendes of Amsterdam, along with Henry Hendrik and Emmanuel Lyon of Germany, petitioned Ostend to become citizens of the town.  After the usual stalling, their requests were granted.

After the French Revolution the Jews’ situation in Ostend remained murky:  Some Jews were granted civic rights, but it is not known whether this was done in the coastal town of Ostend.  Slightly after Belgium became independent, the 1831 constitution placed the Jewish faith on equal footing with the other recognized faiths and the Jewish Central Consistory became an official institution.  The Jewish communities of Antwerp, Arlon, Ghent, Brussels, and Liège were not long in getting official recognition.  The fact that Ostend was not included in this batch proves that the coastal town did not yet have the necessary quorum.  However, Ostend, which became known as “the Queen of Beaches,” ended up drawing a certain number of Jews in the course of the 19th century.  Precise figures are not known, but some tombstones dating back to this period were discovered recently and will doubtless fill in the gaps.

At the end of the 19th century some 300 Jewish families could be found in Ostend during the sumer season.  This new situation prompted King Leopold II to make an annex of a former royal palace available to house a small synagogue.  The king recognized the Jewish Community of Ostend a few years later, through the Royal Decree of June 5, 1904, by which time some 100-150 Jews resided permanently in the seaside town.  In the summer, the number of Jews in Ostend could rise to as much as 1500-2000 due to the influx of vacationers.  The community was granted a permit to build a “real” synagogue on December 10, 1910.  Designed by the Jewish architect Joseph De Langue, the synagogue of Ostend was inaugurated officially on August 29, 1911.  It is located on the square Filip van Maastrichtplein and has continued to operate to this day.

The interwar period was one of prosperity for the Jewish community of Ostend, the population of which even doubled.  The skies over Europe darkened in the 1930s, however, and the first premonitory signs of the tragedy to come appeared with the arrival of Jewish refugees from Germany.  A certain number of them went through Ostend on their way to more favorable climes.  Albert Einstein was one such “transient.”  However, the hour of destruction had sounded.  The German occupying forces expelled the last Jewish inhabitants from Ostend on October 10, 1942, with the order to go to one of the country’s major cities and, above all, “not to forget to communicate your new address.”  For a great many of them this new address would be the Dossin Barracks in Mechelen and extermination camps in Poland.  In the aftermath of World War II the Jewish community of Ostend, which had been devastated by the Holocaust, regrouped on a very modest scale, aware that things would never be the same as before the war.  The synagogue and traditions have been kept alive thanks to the devoted efforts of a few families, such as the Kalters, Kleners, Legleys, and Wulfowiczes.  Obviously, no one can foresee the future, but the last Ostend Jews’ enthusiasm and the local municipal authorities’ constant support have worked miracles and Ostend’s superb synagogue still stands, ready for your visit.