In 1939, the Belgian Jewish community consisted of about 90,000 people, the vast majority of whom lived in the two largest cities - Brussels and Antwerp. Following the German invasion in May 1940 about half of the population fled the country or was deported to France. Over 25,000 avoided deportation by remaining in hiding with help from the Belgian and Jewish underground and the civilian population. Another 25,000 perished after being transported to extermination camp in Auschwitz. Only 2000 of those deported survived the war. On liberation in September 1944 the Jewish Belgian community consisted of approximately 18,000 survivors. They were soon joined by about 10,000 Belgian Jews who returned from the exile, about 5000 refugees from Central and Eastern Europe and 2000 who survived in concentration camps.
ORT courses in Belgium were set up to answer the needs of young Holocaust survivors, who spent the war either in concentration camps or in hiding. Due to their insufficient education, lack of French language skills or in some cases lack of funds, these young people could not immediately integrate into the public school system in Belgium. The courses were established in cities with the largest Jewish population - Brussels and Antwerp. They were run in the form of practical and theoretical vocational courses for adults, daytime trade schools for youth, courses for school children as well as courses established in children’s houses which immediately after the war were taking care of about 2000 orphans of the Holocaust.
The first training workshop opened in April 1946 in Brussels and was taught by both pre-war Swiss ORT teachers and graduates of the post-war instructors’ training. The subjects of the courses established in the school answered to most immediate needs of Belgian industry and the first intake of 60 students was trained in cutting-out of garments, tailoring and sewing. Soon after that, ORT Brussels added training in technical subjects which included electrical installation, radio-technology, welding, gas, water and central-heating installation as well as a laboratory for a techno-chemical course. These courses were held in the ‘Centre Electro-Metal’ which was created by ORT in a refurbished former brewery. A vast majority of Holocaust survivors attending the courses in 1946-47 were, according to an ORT report: ‘badly nourished and insufficiently supported and therefore constantly on the look-out for chance earnings and haphazard ways of making a living,’ but their livelihood improved significantly in subsequent years.
Within a year of its establishment, by August 1947, ORT Belgium had opened in Brussels thirty-two trade schools, training workshops and vocational courses. By that time its courses had been attended by 616 students. From mid-1947 vocational courses were also held in Antwerp and Boitsfort near Brussels. The duration of training varied from five months in training workshops to three years in trade schools. One of such trade schools was a popular two and a half year trade school for girls, which combined general education on the same level as in a Belgian middle schools with training in tailoring. The teaching program included: cutting out of garments, tailoring, embroidery, drawing, arithmetic and book-keeping, anatomy, study of materials, history of fashion and Jewish history. The course had initially enrolled around twenty-five students and a number of them were given scholarships to help with their fees and maintenance costs. Describing an average day at the school, a letter from Belgian ORT reported:
‘The teaching goes on without difficulty. The greatest part of the students stay at the school at noon and they get a substantial soup and a cup of coffee to drink with the sandwiches they bring with them. Several young girls have already told us that they were very pleased to be here. The start of the different courses was very good too. Mlle Laurent had some difficulties in connection with the language, but she now gets understood even by those who don’t speak French.’
A training farm and agricultural school for forty young Aliyah candidates was opened in Kessel-Loo near Leuven in May 1946. The training included kitchen-gardening, dairy farming and poultry farming. In October 1948, ORT Bulletin reported: ‘At the annual agricultural exhibition, the ORT training farm Kessel-Loo, was awarded a gold medal for the cattle they had entered in the contest.’ There was also a dressmaking school for girls established on the farm. In 1948 most of the Kessel-Loo students immigrated to the newly established state of Israel.
Those of the Holocaust survivors who intended to remain in Belgium were provided with help in finding employment. In case they did not speak French well enough to find work or were still awaiting a work permit, they could join one of the ORT former students’ cooperative societies, which were organized by ORT to execute orders for local firms.