Sara Cosemans, a reader, got in touch with me last week with an interesting request. She’s is a Belgian PhD student researching refugee resettlement and was wondering if I knew any Soviet Jews who were housed and routed through a Belgian hotel in the 1970s on their way out of the Soviet Union. Apparently it’s a seedy story with all sorts of angles.
As Sara wrote to me:
I am working on a podcast about one very particular (and peculiar) story that did not end up in my thesis, but that is too good not to tell. In the 1970s, a Belgian hotel near the sea side enriched itself by hosting refugees that had already been selected for overseas resettlement. It started with a small group of Soviet Jews, who were staged in Belgium before leaving for the US. Then came the Ugandan Asians, the Chileans, and the Vietnamese. By 1979, the hotel had a new swimming pool, a horse race track, and a completely revamped interior. In 2000, its director was sent to jail for corruption.
Do you happen to know, or would be able to bring me into contact with anyone of Soviet Jewish background, who was staged in the Belgian seaside hotel (its name was Zon en Zee Westende) before leaving to the United States?
Most of the Soviet immigrants I know are like me: they got routed through Italy with a short stay in Austria. I gotta ask around more but I’m not aware of anyone who went through Belgium. Apparently it was a small group — somewhere on the order of 400 people. So a tiny crowd, compared with the hundreds of thousands that went through the Italian pipeline.
I don’t have any information for Sara, but I’m sending this out in case any of my readers do. Help Sara out! And I’m being selfish here because I very much want to hear the story she’s working on. One question that she’s asking is why in the past refugees were settled a guests in resorts and things like that, while today they’re permanently warehoused in tents in what amount to outdoor prison camps. It’s a great question and a great subject.
Her contact info is email@example.com.
PS: Natalia Medvedeva has a great collection of short stories about her time among Soviet Jewish immigrants in Italy. No translation from Russian, sadly.