On the corner of Avenue Eugène Plasky and rue du Saphir in Schaerbeek stands a distinctive house, built in 1930. It was designed by Belgian architect Théodore Peters for a Dutch textile trader, Alexandre Eekmans. Beyond the striking angularity and the contrast of the functional red brick and green-painted window frames, the house rewards closer scrutiny. Virtually every room on every floor has access to a balcony. The plot allowed no room for a proper garden, but Peters cleverly set the house around a small triangular parterre leading up to the front door and used the longer side of the plot along the rue du Saphir to install a roof terrace with a pergola on the second floor. The ensemble forms a sort of mini-amphitheatre, facing south towards the sun. Until developers built towering blocks of flats on either side, and before the horse chestnut trees in the Avenue Plasky grew tall enough to block out the light, it must have been a nice, airy, sunlit place to live. Today, only an attentive passer-by would notice the discreet grey plaque affixed to a ground floor wall which declares, ‘Alex and Jo Eekman lived in this house. They offered help and shelter to hundreds of anti-fascists from many countries.’ Thereby hangs a tale…
Johanna Eekman, or ‘Jo’, and known as ‘Moeke’, 1897-1960, is listed in the Dictionary of Belgian Women of the Nineteenth and Twentieth Centuries as being a nurse, a communist and a resistance fighter. The editors could – and surely should – have added that she was a pacifist and an anti-fascist. Jo was born in the Netherlands. Her father was a progressive doctor and she followed her brother in becoming a nurse and a pharmacist’s assistant. Having witnessed the horrors of the First World War, she became a convinced pacifist, and it was during a pacifist demonstration that she met her future husband, Alexandre Eekman. ‘Alex’ was also Dutch but was born in Brussels and based in Belgium, with a house in Rixensart. He was a successful trader in textiles and tissues. The two married in 1920 and together had six children. They were both active in the pacifist and anti-fascist struggles of the 1930s. They welcomed many political and Jewish German refugees to their house in Rixensart and then, after 1930, to the house they had built in Brussels, on the corner of Avenue Plasky and rue du Saphir. Jo joined the World Committee of Women Against War and Fascism and took part in a trip to the Soviet Union in 1935. During the Spanish civil war (1936-39), Jo and Alex welcomed eight Spanish children to their house. ‘Moeke’ devoted herself to making them feel a part of the family, with the house in Rixensart becoming like a holiday home.
In September 1939, the war the Eekmans had so feared broke out and on 28 May 1940 Belgium surrendered and was occupied. Alex was initially arrested as a ‘foreigner’. Despite his parents’ pacifism, one of their sons, Tom, had answered the Belgian Army’s call for volunteers and was killed shortly thereafter when his column was strafed by German fighter planes. Jo meanwhile joined the many women’s protests about food shortages and, little by little, all of the family became active in the resistance movement, distributing leaflets, delivering messages, hiding Jewish children…. Her husband and their son, Walter, and daughter, Annette, were arrested on 9 June 1942. Alex died in Mauthausen concentration camp in December 1942. Annette was interrogated in St Gilles prison and then deported to Ravensbrück. In August 1944 Jo was herself arrested, together with her son, Johan, and also deported to Ravensbrück on one of the last transports, where she found Annette, still alive, though grievously sick after a severe bout of typhus. As a trained nurse, Jo was assigned to the infirmary, and immediately started to militate for improved food and conditions, particularly for the babies born in the camp. Jo and Annette survived and on 28 April 1945 were taken to Sweden by the International Red Cross and later repatriated to Belgium.
Jo’s experiences strengthened her commitment to the peace cause and she chaired successively the Flemish branch and the national organisation of the Women’s Rally for Peace (Rassemblement des Femmes pour la Paix). Both Jo and Annette became committed Communists during the occupation (the underground Communist Party had been prominent in organising the Independence Front) and Jo remained an active party member after the war. In 1953 she was reportedly threatened with expulsion from Belgium as an alien because of her allegedly subversive political activities. She remained, alongside her daughter Annette, an active member of the Association of Former Deportees of Ravensbrück. After Jo’s death in 1960, Annette continued in the Association and became a founder member of the International Ravensbrück Committee, established in 1965, arguing passionately that, ‘what we have learned, we have to pass on… So the goal is never to forget. And to go on and fight on so that something like this never happens again.’ Annette herself died in 1997. The International Ravensbrück Committee remains active although very few camp survivors are still alive. But the truth is that, as the living memories fade, we have largely forgotten, and few reading the laconic plaque on the Eekman’s house will do as I have done in penning this piece and learn about the extraordinary contribution the Eekman family made to the cause of peace and, above all, about the extraordinary sacrifices they endured.