Memorialization of the 1926 Maas Flood in the municipality of Wijchen
Written and photography by Astrid Parys
On 31 December 1925, Het Land van Maas en Waal flooded. The abundant rainfall in December, along with ice water from the snowfall at the end of November 1925 caused the water levels of the Maas, Rijn and Waal to rise exceptionally high. On the morning of 31 December, the dike of the Maas broke between Overasselt and Nederasselt, causing a vast amount of Het Rivierengebied to flood. Numerous towns were evacuated and an estimate of 3000 houses were damaged or destroyed, costing around 10 million guilders (with inflation converted to approx. € 75,500,000). As this flood conveyed ‘a sense of emergency and a rupture of continuity in social life’, it can be classified as a disaster (Ullberg 2013: 5). This is illustrated by the framing of the 1926 flood as one of the three most catastrophic floods of the twentieth century in the Maasvallei, along with the floods of 1993 and 1995.
According to Oliver- Smith, ‘disasters are all-encompassing occurrences, sweeping across every aspect of human life, impacting environmental, social, economic, political and biological conditions’ (2002: 23-24). According to newspaper articles from 1926, the flood of the Maas was a ‘national disaster' and was referred to as ‘water violence’ as it impacted all spheres of society.1 The totalizing and often emotional impact of disasters would lead one to believe that they become engrained in the memory of a society. I’m particularly interested in collective memory because I find it remarkable how individuals and communities can feel deeply connected to an event that they themselves did not experience. As a case study for this ethnography, I chose to conduct fieldwork in Wijchen, a municipality located in Het Tweestromenland, the region between the Maas and Waal. I wondered if almost 90 years later, the once sweeping impact of the disaster has led to a social or collective memory of the 1926 flooding in this town in Het Rivierengebied. I examined if and where the memory of the disaster is stored and how it is materialized. Related to this I observed if traces of this past disaster can be encountered in its landscape.
In order to grasp an understanding of the themes set out above, I conducted a full day of fieldwork in Wijchen and along the Maas River in Niftrik, Balgoy and Nederasselt. I primarily engaged in (participant) observation in different settings and of the landscape along the Maas dike. I was not so much focused on how memory is recounted in narratives because I wasn’t able to engage in lengthy and deep conversations with people from the area. I did, however, immerse myself in the local archive and in the landscape along the Maas where I rode my bike for several hours. I gathered material by taking pictures, jotting down field notes in a journal and observing the landscape, trying not to be distracted by its beauty. This allowed me to see how the memory of the disaster was materialized in artefacts and spatialized in places.
The subsequent parts are structured in such a way that they represent the contingent unfolding of my research. I first recount my experience and observations on the train to Wijchen. I then provide relevant themes from my informal conversation with the three people at the VVV information center, which ultimately led me to my third setting: the archive. Lastly, I describe my observations during a bike ride along the Maasdijk. After presenting my findings, I will interpret these in the conclusion. I will close with a personal reflection on my role in the field.
The snowball effect
On the morning of 13 October 2014, I was awoken by raindrops smacking against my window. Though not the ideal weather to head out on the road to make a bike ride along a river that once put whole cities under water, it did trigger a sense of adventure in me. As a third year student of cultural anthropology, this was oddly enough the first time that I single-handedly stepped into the field (literally and metaphorically). In retrospect, I embarked on quite an eventful journey.
Through this experience, it became clear to me what the strength of anthropological fieldwork is: serendipity. I started the day largely without a plan. I had decided where I wanted to conduct my fieldwork (Wijchen) and to some extent what the theme of my research would be (memorialization). Though I’m not typically a shy person, imagine going up to random people and asking them about a flood that happened almost 90 years ago made me rather anxious. Who do I confront? What do I ask them? Where do I go to find this “memory”? A bit clueless, I asked my boyfriend for advice. He recommended that I first visit the VVV information center which was about a minute bike ride from the train station. This small, hexagon-shaped brick tower full of information pamphlets, bike routes and three friendly citizens of Wijchen ended up being the start of a rather unexpected journey of stumbling upon interesting places.
Amsterdam Central Station (11:07) - Wijchen Station (12:56)
My journey began as soon as I stepped on the train at Amsterdam Central Station at 11:07. The ride was very beautiful and relaxing: landscapes swiftly passed by, almost organically merging into each other and at other times abruptly changing from fields to industrial landscapes. Looking out the window I found myself primarily observing the water in all its forms. I noticed a contrast with the pouring rain falling from the skies creating differently shaped puddles in the landscape; and the strictly organized ditches demarcating the green fields of grazing cows and sheep. The contrast I observed is of course culturally informed as in our western society we make a fundamental distinction between nature and culture. I perceived the rain to be natural and thus essential, though also potentially destructive. In contrast, I saw the water in the ditches to be under the control of society: something that can be regulated, measured and distributed. Nearly an hour into the train ride, the sun broke through the gray skies, completely changing my experience of the view. I thought back to the pictures taken during the flood in 1926. This had been the same area, I realized. It is strange how a mere change of lighting and weather determines the perception and experience of spaces. The train ride offered a great moment to reflect and observe the role of water in our society and how it related to my field site.
The VVV information center
A few meters down the road from the train station I entered the VVV tower. In it, two men and a woman were chatting. All three were from the region and were very friendly and helpful. They seemed quite surprised to see someone my age (21) come to Wijchen to learn about the flooding of the Maas. I asked questions like if they had heard about the flood of 1926, and if they had been affected by any of the more recent floods. They were quick to make a comparison between the flood of 1926 which according to them was “serious” and the more recent floods which they did not refer to as floods but as “high waters.” Though on historical websites and in newspaper articles, the floods of 1993 and 1995 were framed as serious floods, they all agreed that it hardly affected their region. The man behind the counter responded: "nothing happened… some people had to evacuate but not even everyone… some colleagues couldn't come to work due to evacuations… for us, it was just some butterflies in the stomach… just put on some rubber boots for the high water in the basement.” When I asked if they thought if something serious could happen again, they quickly shook their head “no, we are prepared… there are secondary channels… it gives the Maas more room… there are pumps and we have the weir that is also the Graafsebrug.” It was clear to me that they didn’t worry or at least said they didn’t worry about the possibly grave effects of flooding in their region. They were confident that the government was capable of mediating the potential threat the water posed to their town. When I asked why in 1995 the water was able to reach such levels, the same man said that “the polder was pumped too late... the groundwater was too high.” In his view, the flood was due to the government’s misstep. I thought this was telling of how ‘disasters occur at the intersection of nature and culture and illustrate, often dramatically, the mutuality of each in the constitution of the other’ (Hoffman & Oliver-Smith 2002: 24). The floods are thus on their own not disasters, only in conjuncture with a human population can they become one (ibid.: 3).
After about twenty minutes I could sense that the man in charge of the information center wanted to get back to work. I bought a bike route and as I was about to leave, hastily asking some last questions, he mentioned that his wife worked at the archive located in the town hall. He was sure that she would be able to help me further. My excitement and curiosity started to rise as I jumped on my bike and rode to the town hall.
When I arrived at the town hall a man showed me to the archive. As I stepped into the room I felt my nerves building up as everyone stared at me wide-eyed like the stranger I was. A man who seemed in charge of the archive explained that walk-in-hours were only on Wednesday and that they were busy. I repeated that someone's husband sent me there. At that moment the wife of the man who worked at the VVV walked in and quickly discussed the issue with the man in charge. They decided that I could stay if I worked quietly in the corner. The man dropped a box filled with folders on the table in front of me. He explained that I needed to work with utmost care and that I could take pictures if I liked.
The box was filled with three folders regarding the flood of 1926: one with newspaper articles and government documents of the flood, one with memorials and commemorations of the flood, and one with personal diaries (image 1). As I sat and opened up each folder, examining its contents, it struck me how surreal it was that I was touching almost a century old, stained newspaper articles, written in a Dutch dialect that seemed almost foreign. I did wonder, who decided what was put into the folders and what was excluded. I asked the man focused on his computer, who had created the files. He explained volunteers had primarily collected them from old boxes in the attics of citizens. When I asked if anyone ever came to check out this part of the archive, he clarified that only once in a while someone like me came to flip through the folders. He was however proud that they have worked together with different museums over the years and last year with the museum castle in Wijchen.
In the commemoration folder, I came across an interview with Piet de Wild (93), a man from Dreumel who experienced the flood of 1926 (image 2). After Het Rivierengebied flooded in 1993, the newspaper De Gelder Krant conducted an interview with Piet. His response struck me as rather different than the prior conversation I had at the information center. Piet explained: "I am so scared when the Maas and Waal are high. On days such as these, the memories come back as though the events happened yesterday.” Piet draws back on his memory of the 1926 flood in order to give meaning to what happened in 1993. His previous experience informed his perceived threat of the Maas, whereas the other people I spoke couldn't draw from such an emotional lived experience when making sense of the 1993 flood they underwent.
Nearly two hours into reading and taking photos of old articles I decided to set out on my bike ride so I wouldn’t be stuck somewhere along the Maas after sundown. I asked a woman for some advice on where I should bike if I wanted to learn something about the landscape. I was to start at point 66 on my map and follow the Maas until I reached the Graafseweg, which I could follow upward until Alverna.
Image 1: The three folders by Astrid Parys
Image 2: Interview with Piet by Astrid Parys
A bike ride down memory lane
As I was biking on a path along the Maas, I started to observe the landscape, searching for traces from the disaster of 1926. I first came across a pumping station called Van Citters II (image 3 & 4). In front of it stood a plaque that displayed a sketch of the station when it was built in 1926 and how it looks now after renovations. This was a clear material trace of the disaster as after the flood of 1926 the government decided to put in this pump to regulate the water level in order to keep Wijchen from flooding during heavy rainfall. A bit later I came across a plaque with different marks and measurements on it, visually representing the water level of different floods that affected the region. A few minutes later I encounter another material trace of the flood: De Balgoyse Put. This was a pit which was dug out so that the soil could be used to strengthen the dike. In the late 1930’s the pit was filled and used for agriculture. Again, only a few minutes later, I reached another plaque. This told the story of how in 1927 the engineer Lely canalized the Maas and straightened the meander of the Maas which previously bent around the town Keent. Keent, once located in Gelderland, was split in two, the other side now located in Brabant. I then passed under a weir which is uniquely also a bridge: de Graafsebrug (image 5). The massive construction impressed me. Next to the base of the bridge was a plaque which indicated that the bridge, built in 1926, is extremely important for regulating the water level. The last memorialization of the flood I passed was the monument in Alverna, dating from 1927, which was revealed by queen Wilhelmina and King Hendrik. The location of the monument used to be the emergency port during the flood of 1926 (image 6). The relatively small sliver of the Maasdijk I observed carried many memories of the flood of 1926. I hope by now it is clear as to why I refer to this experience as ‘a bike ride down memory lane’
Image 3 & 4: Van Cittern II
Image 5: John S. Thompsonbrug, Grave By 23 dingen voor musea from Nederland (John S. Thompsonbrug, Grave) [CC BY-SA 2.0], via Wikimedia Commons
Image 6: Monument in Alverna by Astrid Parys
‘Disasters are not only events but historically embedded processes in that they have ‘a before and an afterlife’ (Ullberg 2013: 7). In this study, I have examined the afterlife of the 1926 flood of the Maas in the context of Wijchen. During my fieldwork, I came across a locus of memories of the Flood of 1926. Some were stored in a ‘digital memory bank’ which included documentaries like ‘Kronkels van de Maas’, a variety of historical and informational web pages, videos and newspaper journals such as The Limburger which published a dossier named ‘Maas de Baas’, including multiple flood stories from local people. Besides memories being stored on the internet, the town Wijchen was a physical manifestation of memories. The museum castle of Wijchen held an exposition ‘Het Water Komt… Wijchen en Water in het Land van Maas en Waal’ in 2013, where memorabilia like old coins, films, archive material and much more was presented to the public. In the town hall of Wijchen, there is an archive and a bike path along the Maas also brings you by some important landmarks showing traces and memories of the disaster. Several memorials were put up in different areas surrounding the Maas such as measurements of the water level of the floods, plaques with information on what has changed since the flood, and the monument in Alverna.
The Maasdijk or as I refer to it as ‘memory lane’ can be conceived as what Endensor describes as a memoryscape as it ‘comprises the organization of specific objects in space, resulting from often successive projects which attempt to materialize memory by assembling iconographic forms’ (1997: 178). As Ullberg asserts, remembering is shaped by various interacting social processes which make the sharing of memories at different scales possible such as in national contexts or between generations (2010: 12). Though I could find no one in Wijchen that personally experienced the flood of the land of Maas and Waal in 1926, a collective memory of the flood is present within Wijchen. This memory is enacted through commemorative rituals, memorials, narratives and landscapes such as the ones mentioned above (ibid.: 12). It is these social processes that make the remembering of the flood possible on a national level. It is important to note that this ‘official’ memorialization of the flood by the government and other agencies is a political process that draws on the present and future concerns to give meaning to the past. This collective memory should not suggest that the disaster is as actively remembered by all the citizens of Wijchen.
In conclusion, I would like to reflect on my role in the field. The background information on the study of disasters and memory formed the lens through which I observed and experienced the landscape of Wijchen. This unquestionably influenced what I found relevant, and thus ultimately the findings of this small research. Of course, every study is influenced by the researchers’ past experiences and subjectivities and this does not have to be inherently negative. I am well aware that my study is incomplete and possibly shaped by the people I spoke with and places I visited as these are not representative of the whole town of Wijchen. I did, however, have the greatest luck with stumbling upon the ‘sites of memory' present in Wijchen.
De rampzalige winter van 1925-1926
De weersomstandigheden waren eind 1925 uitzonderlijk slecht. Als gevolg van overvloedige regenval bereikten zowel de Rijn als de Maas rond de jaarwisseling ongekend hoge peilen. Nog nooit was het water zo hoog gekomen sinds men met de registratie van de rivierstanden was begonnen. Lees meer...
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