A monument to a forgotten war history24.11.2022
On November 10, 2022, it was 78 years ago that on November 10 and 11, 1944, about 52.000 men aged 17 to 40 were deported during the raid in Rotterdam. Art historian and journalist Sandra Smets was commissioned by BKOR to write an essay on the occasion of the annual commemoration in response to the presentation of Anne Wenzel's final design for the Razzia Monument Rotterdam.
A MONUMENT TO A FORGOTTEN WAR HISTORY
After secret preparations, and without any warning, on 10 and 11 November 1944, the occupying forces placed a cordon around Rotterdam and Schiedam, closed off all communications and roads, and deported 52.000 men in the pouring rain for forced labor in Germany. These men were taken away in terror and fear and would have no further contact with the tens of thousands of women who were left in desperation. It was a time when women were not even allowed to have a bank account, often did not work outside the home, and were now alone with their children without any help or knowledge transfer. And that during an occupation that became increasingly grim and for those left behind the great death of the hunger winter would soon begin.
When artist Anne Wenzel was asked to make a design for a Razzia Monument, she decided to focus not only on the deportation or forced labor, but also on its effect on the city itself and its remaining population, the women. She designed a ceramic installation consisting of both a man and a woman. For this she took as a starting point the fact of a family photo, as they will also have been fondly cherished when the families were torn apart. And just as a family photo can be torn in two, and these families were in fact torn in two, Wenzel also designed a two-unit that literally cut them in half. The man and woman were linked together, and are now brutally separated. She emphatically accentuates the wound in fluorescent orange, because that wound, that loss, is what matters to her.
For example, she designed a spatial installation with a distance between the man and the woman. The man is covered with dark glaze like a ghost, the woman is light like a vision. Wenzel has already made images for various cities in the Netherlands and now finally for her own city of Rotterdam. She thinks it is important to emphasize that war has an effect, also on subsequent generations, and also on the present day. It is necessary to face the past and keep remembering it. You must not forget the past if you want to prevent something like this from happening again in the future. And those who forget the past can never fully understand the present.
The bombing of May 1940 in a sense overshadows other war dramas and the raid, for example, has more or less been forgotten. Moreover, war stories should be forgotten, was the tenor after the war, that was better. It was better if people were optimistic and looked to the future. That meant a tunnel vision that you can see even in the war memorials that were erected at the time: in addition to the bombing, they primarily commemorated fallen soldiers and, secondly, members of the resistance. Those were the brave ones, that was the heroic story that matched the story that the enemy was defeated and that the Netherlands were among the winners. This also applied to Rotterdam, which received a new motto from Queen Wilhelmina to add to the city's coat of arms: stronger through struggle. A monument was immediately made for it with that title, a huge one David which was placed in the foyer of City Hall. Also a hero.
This created the tough image of a city that would rise from the ashes like a phoenix. Not much attention was paid to ordinary civilian casualties. In Rotterdam, the war was mainly synonymous with the bombardment, the effects of which were so crushingly visible and which was immediately linked to the reconstruction, which was propagated as a remedy. After all, a city can be repaired. Stones can be rebuilt. That suffering can be repaired. Yes.
Wenzel also did not take an example from existing war memorials. They don't help her, she knew because she has been conducting international research into war, history and monuments for years. In it she saw many war memorials as an expression of political power, as an underline of a victory. She wanted to make a monument that is not about power, but about people. An expression of individuality, an acknowledgment of and for the people who have experienced this or who carry the memory of it intergenerationally, along with traumas that run down families.
This is therefore a memorial without heroism. The woman is both a symbol and an ordinary human being, so is the man. The memorial is also a space, with long benches on which you can sit to look at the Maas, and where you can walk from one statue to the next, read the text. In this way, the monument not only becomes a sight, but also a space where you can stay. Do that and you become part of it, spend time with it, as you spend time in a memorial ceremony. Those who want can do that on their own and that is possible all year round, you can lay flowers there, and the artwork is also open enough for groups to organize a memorial ceremony. The city can take advantage of that.
A memorial means rehabilitation, it's a kind of precedence. That there is now one Razzia Monument comes means that time changes. That change lies in the fact that in the generational changes of the last decades the emphasis has come to lie on the personal. That is a different view than an abstract celebration of the reconstruction of the city. It is up to the artist to bridge that time and to make the past palpable. After all, sixty years ago war memorials were erected for the eyewitnesses, and now they are there for the relatives and for those who did not experience it and are perhaps not concerned with it. The monument is a means to contribute to their awareness of history.
Art can make absence tangible and palpable and it can give a different perspective: looking at the same thing but in a different way. By giving these man and woman timeless clothes and hairstyles, Wenzel makes them universal so that they are more approachable and recognisable. That increases the empathy for us. Her image is not only about the raid, but also about how we shape the memory of it and how we connect with something that we were not present with ourselves and how we also reflect on this story of others. The man and woman look very normal and intact at first glance, only when you take a closer look do you see the pain. That's how it hurts in real life. Sometimes you have to look closer. And so Wenzel designed two human figures to whom you can mirror yourself, who you can look at and whose faces you can read, and because man is an empathetic being, you can empathize with the person you see. She is concerned with raising awareness of what a brutal divorce means for people – then, but also now and in the future. Pain can only heal if it is first recognized. This also applies to Rotterdam. As a city, you can only start processing when this story is seen and it becomes part of the collective consciousness of the people of Rotterdam and Schiedam. Disengaging, telling and listening to all those stories, each with their own accents, is what this work of art is for.