Continue to the content
The heroism of a rector during the war
© Universiteitsarchief KU Leuven
University

The heroism of a rector during the war

During WWII, the occupier requisitioned the first-year students to work in Germany. But they had not counted on Rector Van Waeyenbergh…

3 minutes
25 November 2020

When the Germans invaded Belgium on 10 May 1940, Leuven became a ghost town. The university closed its doors, and professors and students fled the city. Rector Van Waeyenbergh himself helped to evacuate the hospitals with a fire engine. He was the first rector with a driving licence, and as a butcher’s son, he was used to making deliveries. Just before the Germans entered Leuven, on 16 May, the last patient was brought to safety in Brussels. That night, Van Waeyenbergh was moved to tears when he saw the university library burn to the ground.

To keep the enrolment lists hidden from the occupier, Van Waeyenbergh had them immured in the cellars of the University Halls.

Germanophile

Following Belgium’s capitulation on 28 May, the university was reopened at the beginning of July. The rector transformed Arenberg Park into a large vegetable garden, and due to the coal shortage, students were permitted to spend more time at cafés or the cinema in the winter months. Van Waeyenbergh was also personally concerned about the fate of students and professors who ran into trouble with the Germans, and he went to plead their causes in Brussels, using the German that he had learned as a stretcher-bearer during the First World War.

The rector stubbornly opposed every attempt by the occupier to meddle in university policy. But when twenty professors were forbidden from hearing exams, accused of acts of resistance, he was forced to capitulate. He did absolutely refuse to let professors go to Germany to teach there and visiting professors from Germany were not welcome in Leuven.

With a network that extended to the royal court and, via Cardinal Van Roey, to the Vatican, Van Waeyenbergh had considered room to manoeuvre. He managed to prevent the appointment of a German superintendent at the university. At his initiative, the university regulations were temporarily changed: students were no longer obliged to be Catholic. Almost six hundred freethinking and Jewish students were thus able to study in Leuven when the ULB was closed by the German occupier.

After the British air raids in 1944, Van Waeyenbergh himself took photos of the university buildings that had been reduced to rubble.
After the British air raids in 1944, Van Waeyenbergh himself took photos of the university buildings that had been reduced to rubble.
© Universiteitsarchief KU Leuven
Kiekje 0026
© Universiteitsarchief KU Leuven
Kiekje 0024
© Universiteitsarchief KU Leuven
Kiekje 0018
© Universiteitsarchief KU Leuven
Kiekje 0017
© Universiteitsarchief KU Leuven

Act of resistance

To avoid being deported to work in Germany, an increasing number of young men enrolled as students. At the beginning of February 1943, the occupier therefore decided to requisition all the first-year students for six months. Van Waeyenbergh protested forcefully. When an ultimatum was issued at the end of May and the university was threatened with closure, he had the enrolment lists immured in the cellars of the University Halls.

The rector was arrested and sentenced to eighteen months in prison in Sint-Gillis. This caused great outrage. Even the pope and Queen Elisabeth got involved. After a few months, the prison sentence was commuted to house arrest. Based in Tervuren, Van Waeyenbergh continued secretly to run the university from a distance.

In the meantime, the enrolment lists had been stolen from their secure location and handed to the occupier. The Germans were thus able to requisition the majority of first-year students, though some went into hiding and were taught classes clandestinely.

The Germans were able to requisition the majority of first-year students, though some went into hiding and were taught classes clandestinely.

Heroic status

During the night between 11 and 12 May 1944, Leuven was bombed by the British RAF. The university inspector, the managing director in those days, did not survive the air raids. In the days afterwards, Van Waeyenbergh managed to find a car and escaped to Leuven in the middle of the night. He took photographs of the university buildings on Naamsestraat, which had been reduced to rubble.

A few months later, the war ended, and Van Waeyenbergh was able to return the Rector’s House. He remained rector until his retirement in 1962. He became an iconic figure, beloved of the students, many of whom he ferried between Brussels and Leuven. But we should probably take the claim that he knew all of the 8000 students by name with a grain of salt.