Written and Photography by Gaia Rietveld
It’s May 7th, 1945. Two days earlier Nazi-Germany surrendered, and the Dutch occupation ended officially. However, the Allied forces haven’t ingressed most of the villages and cities in the West of the country yet, including Amsterdam (Paleis op de Dam 2015). Some papers claim that the Allied forces will arrive in Amsterdam this day, leading to thousands of people gathering at the Dam to celebrate and welcome the liberators. In reality, only one small Canadian reconnaissance regiment arrives and leaves after a few rounds on the square, but the crowd celebrated anyway (De Dam als plaats van herinnering 2006). After the Canadians left, the Dutch Binnenlandse Strijdkrachten (BS) and the German Kriegsmarine start shooting at each other on the square, leading to at least 31 deaths and an estimated 100-120 wounded. Some people were shot; others were injured because they were trampled by the fleeing and panicking crowd (Stichting Memorial 2015 voor Damslachtoffers 7 mei 1945 2015a).
What exactly happened that day still isn't very clear. The general consensus is that the BS were disarming German soldiers in the city. When a German soldier near the Palace didn't want to hand over his weapon shots were fired. This initiated the Kriegsmarine, which resided in the building of the Groote Club, to start shooting at the BS on the Dam square, where the celebrating crowd was also located. Another story is that the Germans initiated the shooting as revenge for cutting the hair of the so-called Moffenhoeren (literally the hookers of The Kraut) (Stichting Memorial 2015 voor Damslachtoffers 7 mei 1945 2015; Verzetsmuseum 2015). The shooting lasted for two hours, and it’s unclear how the shooting ended. One story says that the commander of the BS and the captain of the Ortskommandantur finally managed to move the parties to cease fire. Another story says the shooting stopped after bazooka grenades were fired from the Palace to the Groote Club. (Stichting Memorial 2015 voor Damslachtoffers 7 mei 1945 2015).
In this fieldwork report, I will discuss the findings of my fieldwork research. I will focus on the traces left behind by the incident on the Dam Square and the ways this event is currently memorialized. On the 7th of May 2016, a new monument for the victims of the shooting will be unveiled. Therefore I will also discuss this new monument and the reasons and needs for creating a monument 70 years after the incident.
The site of the incident
Dam Square is the central square of the Dutch capital of Amsterdam. Originally the square was a dam in the river Amstel, which explains the name of the square. It eventually grew bigger and became the central point of the city (Schooltv 2004). At the moment the square is a junction of shopping streets and traffic, and the location of multiple important buildings such as the Krasnapolsky hotel, the New Church, the Royal Palace of Amsterdam (which is partially a museum), the Madame Tussauds museum and the Bijenkorf warehouse. Another building on the square, important to the 1945 shooting, is the Groote Club, a social and business society that’s still active today (Koninklijke Industrieele Groote Club 2015). Even though Dam Square got more modern, these aspects haven’t changed much since 1945. All of these buildings except the Madame Tussauds museum were there in 1945, and it already was an important shopping district (Amsterdamse grachtenhuizen 2013). However, there has been one major change to the square since 1945. In 1956 a national monument was unveiled by Queen Juliana, a 25-meter high marble-like pylon with a semi-circular wall of urns behind it, made by J. Rädecker and J.J.P. Oud. This monument is a national memorial for the fallen of the Second World War. Every year on the 4th of May the ceremony of the national Remembrance Day is being held at this monument (Gemeente Amsterdam 2016).
Figure 2. Dam Square on May 8th 1945 (Fredericks 1945)
Preparing my fieldwork
On a sunny Saturday afternoon, I decided it was a perfect day to go for a little bike ride to The Growing Monument to conduct my fieldwork. After getting somewhat lost in the Bijlmermeer area, I finally arrived at a peaceful park within the midst of it a white, concrete wall. It was The Growing Monument. Having done some research beforehand, I knew that the monument consists of several components, which all can be traced back to the disastrous crash in a metaphorical way. Amongst these components are the wall, “the Tree that saw it all” that I mentioned earlier, the promenade and the Footprint, which I will all outline later on (Descombes and Hertzberger, 1999: 7). I stopped and took a moment to look around and explore the surrounding area. There were a lot of people walking or biking through the park, but none of them seemed to have the intention to stop and sit down, let alone paying the monument a visit. I do have to admit that from where I was standing, the monument seemed like a useless, concrete wall with a couple of see-through holes in it and I thus wondered if people would actually know what the wall meant while passing it in a hurry. I locked up my bike and walked closer to the monument. While I was coming closer, I discovered a plaque on the wall. The plaque explained what had happened almost 24 years ago and that it was part of a monument to commemorate the event.
One of the first things I noticed when I approached the monument was the ground, which was paved with several colorful mosaics. I walked around while staring at the different mosaics on the ground and eventually found myself at the other side of the wall, where something else struck my eye. In the wall, there were several inscriptions. I started to read them and noticed that some of them were connected to the mosaics. One inscription was saying that one of the mosaics involves an ashtray and was made for one of the casualties as a reminder for all the smokes together. I started looking for the ashtray in the mosaic and got “lucky”. It was a bit of a strange feeling, because at one hand I felt like a happy and excited 5-year old again, going on a quest where I succeeded in. On the other hand, I thought about the person the mosaic was made for and tried to imagine how he or she might have felt while trying to escape the burning building in order to survive the crash. What struck me while looking at other mosaics was that at least two of them consisted of slivers of Israeli glass and ceramics. Only when seeing the second mosaic, I realized not only 39 residents of the Bijlmermeer area passed away during the disastrous event, but also four Israeli’s who were attending the flight (Muller, 2012).
Seeing a disaster through your own eyes: fieldwork observations
On the 26th of March 2016, I went to the Dam Square to make my own observations of the disaster site. Since I live about five minutes away from the square, I leave by bike. It's a very warm and sunny day, especially for March. It's also Easter weekend, so many people have a few days off. Because of these circumstances, the square is very busy, especially with tourists. I lock my bike and start looking around the square. Since I’ve lived in Amsterdam my whole life it’s a very familiar place, where I’ve been to many times. I try comparing the square to a picture I have found of the Dam Square on the 8th of May 1945, a day after the shooting (as seen in Figure 2). I note that most of the buildings displayed are still there, but some of the businesses inside have changed over time, such as the H&M, the Madame Tussauds museum and quite a few souvenir shops and cafés. The square currently hosts some entertaining acts, mainly watched by tourists, such as a few living statues of e.g. Darth Vader and Poseidon. I imagine there are a lot more tourist on the square now than in 1945. The biggest difference, as noted before, is the national monument for the fallen of WWII at the place where used to be a small park. A lot of people are sitting on the monument and the stairs surrounding it, some of them eating or looking at travel guides.
Across the street, I see a building that is being renovated, with a large cloth in front says ‘De Groote Club’ on top. Even though I didn't know de Groote Club prior to my fieldwork, I’m a bit confused, as I had understood from my research it was another building on the square. As I check this building I get even more confused. There is only one quite small balcony, which is very low, and I can’t find the memorial plaque that’s supposed to be on the side of the building. I decide to go to the building that I thought was de Groote Club, and it turns out de Groote Club has multiple buildings on the Dam Square, this being the right one. It makes me realize how much of a visual image of a disaster you already can have just by looking at pictures of the event.
The building is in style with most of the other buildings on the square: it is clearly an older building partially made out of light-toned stones, with small balconies and lots of windows (Figure 3). At the moment the Rabobank uses the ground floor of the building. As I look at the front door of the building I see a list of names next to doorbells. Most of them are names of large companies, such as H&M. The balconies are on the first floor of the building but are quite high considering the height of the ground floor. I have no means of entering the building, since it is closed, probably for the Easter weekend. Next, I walk to the corner of the building, where the plaque in memory of the victims of the shooting is supposed to be (Figure 4). When I see it I realize how unremarkable the plaque actually is. I must have walked past it hundreds of times without seeing it while shopping with my friends or family. The plaque isn't very large, about 30x40 cm. As the text is made out of the same dark material as the rest of the plaque, it is not very legible. The text reads: ‘In commemoration of the civilians that have fallen on Dam Square on the 7th of May 1945’. I note a few things about the text. First of all, even though the plaque is clearly meant for the shooting specifically, as the date is mentioned, it nowhere states what actually happened. If I had read the text earlier, when I was coincidentally passing it, I would actually have no idea what it would commemorate. I can’t think of a reason for not including this, except there being too little space left on the plaque. Secondly, it is specifically meant for civilian deaths, not for the fallen of the BS soldiers during the shooting. To me, this indicates that they are understood to have been involved differently in the shooting than civilians. One of the possible reasonings behind this is that the BS soldiers are not as innocent as the civilian victims were, for reasons such as them being part of the army, them having weapons to defend themselves, or the BS possibly provoking the Kriegsmarine to start shooting.
Finally, I walk over to the places the Kriegsmarine were shooting at. I try to find any traces of the shooting at the places I had seen in the pictures from my prior research, but I can’t find any traces. The lampposts behind which people hid are gone. Even though there are still tramrails running the square in the same pattern as in 1945, I don’t see anything unusual about them. I also realize they probably have changed since 1945. I try to scan the ground for any signs of the shooting, but it is a hopeless task. I decide that I have seen enough of the disaster site, and return home.
All in all the fieldwork made me realize how little traces of the shooting are actually left at Dam Square. The only mark visible to the unknown eye is an unremarkable plaque on the corner of a building. This made me realize we do not commemorate every disastrous event, and we even might intend to forget some of them.
Figure 3. The present-day building of De Groote Club
Figure 4. The current memorial of the victims of the shooting on De Groote Club building
The past in the present: e-mail interview with a representative of Stichting Memorial 2015 voor Damslachtoffers 7 mei 1945
Currently, the only sign of memorial of the shooting is the small plaque on the wall of the Groote Club. However, seventy years after the incident, Stichting Memorial 2015 voor Damslachtoffers 7 mei 1945 is working on a new memorial. They are investigating the identity of all the victims of the shooting, and will engrave their names in stones that will be placed on the ground of the Dam Square, and unveiled on the 7th of May 2016 (Stichting Memorial 2015 voor Damslachtoffers 7 mei 1945 2015). As I thought it was interesting that a new monument was built 70 years after the actual incident, I interviewed a representative of the Foundation, by e-mail.
The representative wasn’t directly involved with the shooting but a genealogist specialized in identifying war victims. Together with two relatives of victims of the shooting and a historical researcher they form the board of the foundation. The goal of this foundation is to research the circumstances of the shooting, identifying and researching the victims of the incident and to establish a memorial for these victims. The foundation is supported by multiple historical institutions and a Committee of Recommendation, members being e.g. Eberhart van der Laan and Job Cohen. Currently, the identities of 31 victims have been confirmed.
We can only speculate the reason why a more noticeable and specific memorial hasn’t been established until now, 70 years after the events. However, the representative noted that it might have to do with the timing of the event. The Netherlands had been through many hardships during WWII and had to process a lot during the years of rebuilding the country. It might have been too early to have been more specific about the incident on the current memorial. However, memories of the event were never lost. The representative stated the shooting had a lot of consequences for the lives of the victims and their relatives. Women lost their husband, thus the breadwinner of the family, and were forced to remarry. Children lost a parent or sibling, and vice versa parents lost their children. Many people were hurt, some currently still having physical complaints due to the shooting. Others developed a fear of being in crowds and loud noises. All in all, the victims carried their loss with them for their entire life. The general public, however, moved on pretty quickly, tucking away the pain of war and looking towards a new future. A lot of the pictures made on the 7th of May are still pretty well-known but rarely talked about. However, the new monument can give victims and relatives an opportunity to give a place to their losses.
The research into the names of the victims and the plans for the monument was initiated by relatives of the (killed) victims. This makes it seem that the monument is especially of importance to the victims of the shooting, as a way giving their loss a place. However, the representative argues it is important for everyone to remember the shooting, as the incident is still relevant to our current society. It is important to pass on history to further generations, and not forget our actions and their consequences from our past. The events of May 7, 1945, show us how brittle and unclear the divide between war and peace actually is. We are still confronted with this fact, as shown by the recent terrorist attacks in Paris and Brussels.
The interview with the representative made me realize how much of an impact an incident such as the shooting on the Dam Square can have on its victims, as it still influences the lives of many people 70 years after the incident. I also noted how much a memorial can actually mean to victims and the process of their losses. Ultimately, it also reinforced my earlier realization that not every disastrous situation will be commemorated collectively, and some pain and difficulty is rather forgotten than remembered.
Most of the people I told about my fieldwork on the shooting on the Dam Square (mainly my family and friends) didn’t seem to know the incident had actually happened. However, it surprised me that quite a few people did know about it, and I turned out to have a closer relationship to the event than I initially thought. The grandfather of a good friend of mine actually was on the Dam Square that day and survived the shooting. The 7th of May 1945 that seemed so long ago during my fieldwork suddenly felt very close when she told me about it.
Sometimes we rather forget horrible things that have happened. We, intentionally or unintentionally, do not always memorialize these events, and eventually their imprint on the landscape almost vanishes completely, as is the case with the shooting on the Dam Square. However, these disasters cannot be forgotten by all. Its impact on the lives of victims and their relatives stay very real. Remembrance is important to these victims for dealing with the pain, and also as a lesson to younger generations. This is why even 70 years after the events people are still working on memorializing a disaster.
Another important insight from my fieldwork is the power of images of a disaster. The many pictures that were taken on the day of the disaster gave me a very clear image of the course of the shooting. I even knew from which building on the square the Kriegsmarine was shooting, just from the pictures. They are also the first thing many people think of when talking about the shooting.
The experience of doing this fieldwork has made me more aware of the way in which we commemorate and memorialize disasters. I am more aware of the many monuments in the city and started thinking about their many forms and purposes. This made me raise some questions that should be interesting for future research: why is one disaster memorialized more than another? How long does it take before we start commemorating disasters? Why are some forms memorials so popular? And are there right and wrong ways of commemorating? Seeing remembrance is meaningful to us all, and plays such an important role in our society these questions are important to ask and hopefully answer.
Het bloedbad op de Dam blijft 70 jaar na 7 mei 1945 nog steeds verbazen
Op 7 mei 1945 schoten Duitsters plotseling op de feestvierende menigte op de Dam. Maar was het wel zo plotseling? Zeventig jaar blijft het bloedbas na de bevrijding verbazen. Lees meer..
Schietpartij op de Dam kent 32ste slachtoffer Lees meer...De schietpartij op de Dam, waarbij op 7 mei 1945 tientallen mensen door Duitse militairen werden doodgeschoten, kent een nieuw slachtoffer: de destijds 74 jaar oude Amsterdammer Henk Karel Smit.
2013 Bouwactiviteiten rond de Dam. http://www.amsterdamsegrachtenhuizen.info/gracht/dm/dm010b/ (25-2-2016).
Bool, F & Hekking, V
1992 De Dam 7 mei 1945: Foto’s en documenten. Haarlem: Focus Publishing B.V.
De Dam als plaats van herinnering
2006 Schietpartij van 7 mei 1945. http://www.paleisamsterdam.nl/programma/tentoonstellingen/paleis-en-de-dam/schietincident (25-2-2016).
Fredericks, J. Wayne
1945 Luchtfoto van de Dam op 8 mei 1945. https://wo2.sharepoint.com/Pages/Fotos.aspx (19-3-2016).
2016 Nationaal Monument. https://www.amsterdam.nl/kunstencultuur/monumenten/monumenten-0/projecten-onderzoek/top-100-jonge/100-monumenten/nationaal_monument/ (25-2-2016).
Koninklijke Industrieele Groote Club
2015 Homepage. https://www.igc.nl/home (25-2-2016).
Paleis op de Dam
2015 Schietincident op de Dam. http://www.paleisamsterdam.nl/programma/tentoonstellingen/paleis-en-de-dam/schietincident (25-2-2015).
Randen, Wiel van der
1945 Schietpartij op de Dam in Amsterdam, 7 mei 1945. http://www.geheugenvannederland.nl/?/nl/items/SFA02:1000648 (10-4-2016).
2004 Amsterdam die grote stad… Genoemd naar de dam in de Amstel. http://www.schooltv.nl/video/amsterdam-die-grote-stad-genoemd-naar-de-dam-in-de-amstel/ (25-2-2016).
Stichting Memorial 2015 voor Damslachtoffers 7 mei 1945
2015 Schietpartij op de Dam. http://de-dam-zevenmei1945.nl/nl/ (25-2-2016).
2015 Bloedbad op de Dam. https://www.verzetsmuseum.org/museum/nl/kinderen/voorkant/bevrijding/bloedbad_op_de_dam (25-2-2016).