THE LIVED EXPERIENCE AND MEMORY OF THE 1940’S BOMBARDMENT
Written and photography by Aida Bilajbegovic
In 1940 on the 14th of May at 13:30 hours Rotterdam got bombed by the Germans. This bombardment was part of a bigger German operation, so called the ‘German attack' as a result of the second world war. The entire historical center got damaged due to fires that arose after the bombardment. Despite the fact that the bombardment ‘only' lasted for 15 minutes, it had major consequences. Several churches and synagogues got ruined, approximately 650 to 900 people were killed and about 80.000 people became homeless. The bombardment gave Rotterdam a very different cityscape compared to other Dutch cities. The destruction of the historical center has led to a newly built city center of Rotterdam's which is characterized by high-rise buildings. So, nowadays the results of the bombardment are still visible. Walking through the city of Rotterdam, the high-rise buildings tell that Rotterdam has a completely different history compared to any other Dutch city.
These (visible) results of the bombardment were the exact reason of my latest visit to Rotterdam. On Thursday the 23th of October 2014 I took the train from Amsterdam to Rotterdam to conduct fieldwork on the bombardments. I devoted this fieldwork trip to a personal quest for the lived experience and memory of the bombardment. Hereby, I used participant observation and unstructured interviews as research techniques. Using these techniques I mainly tried to discover how the memory of the bombardment is maintained. Also, I focused on how the city of Rotterdam became what it nowadays is in relation to the impact of the bombardment. In this paper, I will share (and reflect on) the results of this days. First I will describe own experience during participant observations. Second, I will share and describe two of the interviews. Concluding I will give my own interpretation on how the bombardment of Rotterdam is being memorized in the everyday life of its residents.
Looking for Bombs
Before my fieldwork trip, I had done some research and I planned to visit the ‘Brandgrens' which is a permanently marked area that used to be devastated by the fires. I also planned to visit ‘De Verwoeste Stad’ which is a monument that Ossip Zadkine made in response to the bombing of Rotterdam. I simply chose these two monuments because they were the two first and most mentioned during my internet research. Besides these plans I had little knowledge of Rotterdam and arriving at the train station I didn't know where to go. On my way to the exit of the train station, I saw a tourist information point. There I asked one of the employees which were the best places to go and see monuments or remaining of the bombardment. The employee immediately referred to ‘De Verwoeste Stad' and the ‘Brandgrens' so I asked for a map to see how to get there. I had been told that there was also a map of the walking route of the ‘Brandgrens’ but that I needed to go to another tourist information point to get that map. Feeling happy and excited I walked outside the train station and immediately saw a big and impressive fancy looking high-rise building. The first site of the city indeed made me realize that what I saw was probably not build that long ago. In the metro station, I felt the same. With again Amsterdam as my reference point, I surprisingly saw how a silver, shiny and futuristic looking metro stopped in front of me.
The next tourist information stop was close to the metro stop and while walking there I still felt the excitement of ‘chasing a disaster'. All the buildings that surrounded me were looking like recently built buildings and all of a sudden I felt far from home. Living in Amsterdam I am used to the classical old Dutch buildings which due to their warm colors and unique architecture give me a warm feeling. The buildings that surrounded me in Rotterdam gave me an ‘industrial' and ‘raw' feeling. I felt a bit lost and disoriented but thanks to the city map I was able to find the tourist information quickly. There I got a map of the walking route of the ‘Brandgrens’ and directions to go to ‘De Verwoeste Stad’ monument. Before my fieldwork trip, I had looked up how the monument looked like so I could find it more easily. I expected to maybe see some tourist in front of it taking a picture. Arriving there I got surprised because I saw a homeless man defecating just 50 meters away from the monument.
Figure 1. ‘De Verwoeste Stad’ by Aida Bilabegovic
Figure 2. ‘De Verwoeste Stad’ by Aida Bilabegovic
The square the monument is built on was entirely empty and there was not even one tourist, as you can see in figure 1. So, besides the homeless man, I was the only one standing on that square facing the big monument. Both, in figure 1 and 2 it is visible how the monument is surrounded by high-rising buildings. The homeless man made me feel a bit uncomfortable, and after I took some pictures I walked away.
My the next step in my quest was to ‘find’ the bombardment of Rotterdam and walking a part of the ‘Brandgrens' route. According to the map, walking this route you could see the border between the part of the city that got immediately affected by the bombs and the part that didn't. While holding the map in my hands I felt fascinated walking the route. What fascinated me was that it was very hard for me to imagine that 74 years ago this was the border zone of the fires that arose due to the bombardment. At first sight, there is nothing really to see. I saw people walking, talking, biking and calling. I saw some people sitting in restaurants and cafés and other people walking in and out stores. Some cars passed by. But when I looked more closely, I indeed saw the results of the bombardment. I saw a mixture of new and old buildings.
Figure 3. ‘Brandgrens’ by Aida Bilabegovic
Figure 4. ‘Brandgrens’ by Aida Bilabegovic
Both figure 3 and 4 show how new architecture is mixed with old architecture. These two pictures are two examples of two buildings standing next to each other with both in completely different styles and periods. During the walking tour, I saw many more of these examples.
After I walked a part of the ‘Brandgrens' route I felt like I still needed to talk to people. As a complete outsider, I felt so curious about the opinion of Rotterdam's residents. My observations told me that looking closely at the city's architecture and the cityscape, the bombardment literally shaped Rotterdam as how it is nowadays. But besides these visible results, I could not see, feel, or smell how the bombardment is being remembered. I still wondered about how the bombardment is being memorized by people that were born around that time. Therefore I decided to walk back to the most ‘obvious' place where I felt it was less weird to randomly start a conversation about the bombardment. I thought it made more sense to ask questions about the bombardment standing next to a monument than walking on the street. So I decided to walk back to ‘De Verwoeste Stad'.
Next to the square was a walking path and I waited for a few minutes to think about the questions I wanted to ask. I came up with two questions which focus on the influence of the bombardment on the city of Rotterdam and how the memory of the bombardment is being kept alive.
Standing in the cold wind surrounded by high-rising buildings while people were passing me by I started to feel uncomfortable and I walked back and forth. I wanted to find somebody that had experienced the bombardment so I focused on elderly white people. I saw an old man walking by himself and I asked him if I could ask him some questions about the bombardment of Rotterdam. I explained to him that I studied anthropology and that I was interested in the bombardment of Rotterdam. I first asked if he was born in Rotterdam and his age. He told me he has the age of 76 and that he doesn’t remember anything of the bombardment. He told me a lot about how he thinks the bombardment influenced the city. According to this man, the city got entirely shaped by the bombardment because, as he said, ‘all the old trash was removed’ after the bombardment. Then he told me about how Rotterdam ‘used’ to be and he started telling about that he could never live in the neighborhood where he used to live. When I asked him why he started telling me about how all the Moroccan and Turkish people ‘expelled' the ‘real' residents of Rotterdam. I tried to stick to my question and I asked about how the bombardment is being memorized. Then he answered that you don’t have to ask the youth anything about the second world war and that he felt like nobody probably knows about it.
After the interview, I felt happy that I found somebody that actually really survived the bombardment but I didn’t know how to interpret his answers. That's why I wanted to talk to somebody else. I went up to an old lady with a pram but she told me she was in a hurry. Her answer made me feel rejected so it took me some minutes again to get over my shyness and talk to somebody else. I walked back and forth again until I saw another elderly looking white man. This man was 56 years old and also lived all his life in Rotterdam. He said he didn't like how the city of Rotterdam looks like with its high-rising buildings. He mentioned other cities in Holland and said that Rotterdam is the only Dutch city without an old and beautiful city center. When I asked him if the bombardment nowadays is still being remembered he said that you have to look with a flashlight in order to find a ‘real' Rotterdam resident. He said that all the people that survived the bombardment are probably dead. Then, he also started talking about how many different other cultures are living in Rotterdam now, referring to Moroccan and Turkish people.
After I talked to both men I felt a bit confused. I wanted to go to a café to get warm and write down my thoughts. Going to the bathroom in the café, my eyes got caught by some free postcards. On every postcard was written ‘You are in Rotterdam..’ followed by a rule. As you can see in figure 5 on one of the postcards was written ‘Don’t ask for the old city center’. It made me laugh and I took the card home.
Figure 5. Postcard by Aida Bilabegovic
On my personal quest for the lived experience and memory of the bombardment, I came across different answers. Arriving at a complete empty square with the biggest monument of the bombardment I felt like it was impossible to conduct my fieldwork. Seeing a homeless man defecating next to the monument, I symbolically interpreted as ‘nobody gives a shit'. My observations while walking the ‘Brandgrens' tour also did not give me the impression that the bombardment is nowadays still being memorized in the daily lives of Rotterdam's residents. Seeing all the hasty people passing me while I was observing the buildings around me, I thought that probably only architecture students would notice what I noticed.
Also, the interviews made clear that the people living in Rotterdam nowadays think about the bombardment. However, the interviews made clear that indirectly the bombardment is actually still being memorized. In both interviews, the bombardment was symbolically being used as being ‘old' and something that refers to ‘back in the days'. After asking how the bombardment got influenced both men started talking about Moroccan and Turkish people living in Rotterdam so, the bombardment represents change. Change of the city and the people living there. After the bombardment not only the cityscape changed, but also the population changed due to the coming of immigrants such as Moroccan and Turkish people. The memory of the bombardment is part of a bigger memory. This memory stands for ‘before’ and ‘after’ the war.
The postcard refers to the most obvious answer in how the memory of the bombardment is being kept alive. The absence of an old historical center is the hard and every day prove of what happened in 1940. Rotterdam is literally shaped by the bombardment. The city would not look as it looks nowadays without the bombardment. Despite the clearly different cityscape, I think the visible remaining is less powerful than the invisible remaining. With other words, the different cityscape does not necessarily contribute to how the bombardment is being memorized in everyday life. Rather, the historical and cultural connection the bombardment carries is what it keeps being memorized.
Rotterdam en de verwoesting ná de bommen De verwoesting van Rotterdams binnenstad ontstond door Duitse bommen, natuurlijk, maar ook door de enorme brand daarna en door het besluit alles wat beschadigd was radicaal te slopen. Herstel was in 1940 geen optie. Andere Tijden bericht over de grootste puinhoop uit onze geschiedenis. Lees meer...
Brandgrens Rotterdam 14 mei 1940. Een Duits bombardement van nog geen kwartier vernietigt de binnenstad van Rotterdam. Nederland capituleert. De stad brandt nog dagen en de begrenzing van het verwoeste gebied krijgt een unieke Rotterdamse benaming: de brandgrens. Lees meer...