War memories widen Belgium's communal rift

SARAH HELM

Brussels

Flemish nationalists will gather outside the Palais de Justice in Brussels today to call for an amnesty for all Belgians who collaborated with German occupiers in the Second World War. The nationalists will lay a wreath in memory of Irma Laplasse, who was executed by firing squad in 1948 for collaboration.

On Wednesday, Belgium's highest military court ruled that Laplasse should not have been executed. The judge found that the farmer's wife from the Flemish village of Oostduinkerke had indeed committed treachery by directing the Nazis to a resistance hideout. But her crimes did not warrant execution; instead, she should have been given a life sentence.

As the judgment was delivered at the Palais de Justice, Belgian concentration- camp survivors wearing the blue and white caps of Auschwitz and Ravensbruck gathered outside to protest. Also present were groups of Belgian war-time resistance fighters and veterans of the Belgian secret army. These demonstrators cried out against an amnesty and against any posthumous rehabilitation for Laplasse.

"I lost my parents, my brothers and my sisters before I escaped from Auschwitz," said Haim Prchcearski, as he showed his camp number tattooed on his arm. "Women like [Irma Laplasse] sent us to the camps."

The Laplasse case has reopened deep divisions in Belgian society, reviving hatred and suspicion between the French-speaking Walloons and the Flemish extremists who want an independent Flanders. Although there were collaborators in both communities it is the Flemish who call most loudly for an amnesty, presenting it as part of a national agenda.

During the appeal the court heard how, just hours before the village of Oostduinkerke was liberated by Canadian forces in September 1944, seven resistance fighters had rounded up collaborators including Irma Laplasse's son, Fred Laplasse. According to the evidence Fred's mother informed the Germans, who then raided the school where the collaborators were being held, killing the seven resistance fighters.

The Flemish nationalists have argued that there was never any evidence to suggest that Irma Laplasse revealed the whereabouts of the hideout. Her execution, they say, was political and they accuse the Belgian government of victimising Flemish collaborators in an attempt to repress the Flemish community.

By reopening the case the Belgian government risked strengthening the case for an amnesty for up to 15,000 Belgians who are still accused of collaboration, and still punished under Belgian law by reduced pension and property rights.

The final judgment was an attempt to find a compromise. The Belgian authorities clearly hope now that by declaring Irma Laplasse a traitor they will quell emotion among the families of the dead resistance fighters. However, as today's demonstration will show, the decision may only refuel the campaign for amnesty.

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