A Razzia Monument for Rotterdam

by Flos Wildschut 10.11.2021
photo Lotte Stekelenburg

So many kinds of sorrow,
I don't name them.
But one, the renunciation and divorce.
And not the cutting hurts so much,
but being cut off.

M. Vasalis,
first stanza of the poem Sotto voce
uit Views and faces 1957

Two small ceramic figures – a standing woman in white regalia and a man in dark tones sitting on one knee – are set up in the studio of the Rotterdam artist Anne Wenzel. The figures are part of a design that Wenzel made for a monument that commemorates the Razzia of Rotterdam and Schiedam on 10 and 11 November 1944. Slowly circling the images, a bright orange shape emerges from the front of the woman's long white dress. Is it a stain, maybe from a wound? Now it is also noticeable that the same orange shape has affected the left side of the man. The two figures initially appear to have been attached to each other, but are separated from each other by brute force. With this literal intersection of the double portrait into two separate images, Anne Wenzel manages to portray all the emotions of separation, of being cut off, painfully effectively.

The Razzia of Rotterdam and Schiedam

On 9 November 1944 – four and a half years after the devastating bombing of Rotterdam – 8000 heavily armed German soldiers are deployed under code name Aktion Rosenstock. Squares and bridges are occupied, telephone traffic is cut off and pamphlets are delivered to the letterboxes of many households. By order of the German Wehrmacht, all men between the ages of 17 and 40 must register for the labor force. They should immediately go out on the street and bring warm clothes, sturdy shoes, blankets and sandwiches for one day. All other residents must stay indoors. On 10 and 11 November, all houses are systematically searched by the Germans for men in the correct age category who are still present. 52.000 boys and men are collected at twelve locations in Rotterdam and then transported on foot, by train or by boat to the east of the Netherlands and Germany to perform forced labour. The raid is carried out so systematically, so quickly and with such intimidation that there is almost no escape. Only a few manage to escape the strict surveillance. There is great panic in the city. Many women go looking for their husbands. The wife of a Rotterdam doctor reports: “At first the women ran back and forth like crazy to see if they could get the men back. On Saturday you could already go to various assembly points. Nearly all the women were in the street, walking to the Stadium and from the Stadium back to the boats. Only sick people were at home, everything else ran in the streets.”[1] Some women manage to trace their husbands and even bring luggage, but most betrothed, husbands, mothers and children have to do it without saying goodbye. A few of them find a farewell note, left on the kitchen table: “Finally it has come to the point where I am also the cigar (…) I don't know where we are going, but in any case, hold on tight, we'll see ( ...) I'll just finish because they patrol the streets all the time and fire every now and then (...)."[2] The doctor's wife continues her moving story: "When the men went into the boats I had the feeling: this is the last one, I will never see it again.”[3] And that would indeed apply to more than 500 deportees. They do not survive the horrors due to exhaustion, disease, bombardments and attempts to flee.

The Rotterdam and Schiedam raid is the largest raid that took place in the Netherlands during the Second World War and is considered a traumatic event for Rotterdam and Schiedam. Not only for the men who are arrested, but also for those left behind. Moreover, after the war, sometimes only months after the liberation, it is not possible for many of the men who return to process the trauma. In a city dominated by reconstruction, there is no place for the stories of the returned men and those who stayed behind. This ensures that there is little or no talk about the raid and that the enormous drama is forgotten.

A place of memory for a forgotten drama

Rotterdam has about 75 war memorials. The most famous is The destroyed city by visual artist Ossip Zadkine (1888-1967), which was given a place in the city quite soon after the war, in 1953. The human figure with a hole in the place of his heart is the symbol of the bombed city. This symbol plays an important role in making history tangible. Zadkine's image can be seen as a so-called locus memoriae, a place of memory, or also called a memory place.[4] These are places where people are connected to the past and where they can appropriate that past by making its traces their own lived history. They can be both material and immaterial places, such as a geographical place, an archive, a museum, a work of art, a monument, but also a symbol or a ritual. Memories play an important role in shaping our identity, both on an individual level and on that of a group or nation. Especially when it concerns a past, of which there are hardly any eyewitnesses, who can convey their personal memories, places of remembrance become of greater importance. In that case, commemoration changes from personal remembering to collective remembering.[5]

Apart from four plaques[6], there is no prominent public place for reflection and commemoration for the round-up of Rotterdam and Schiedam. The commemoration meeting, which has been held annually in the Feyenoord stadium since 2007, is known only to a small group of insiders. Before the traumatic event is completely forgotten, it is important to maintain or even reactivate the memory. And imagination plays an essential role in this. Willem Frijhoff states in his book The fog of history: “Places of memory are always places of imagination. Remembering is (…) a others presenting reality with the means of nu[7]. If that imagination is properly aroused, even distant past events, which one has not experienced themselves, can solidify into a memory that one thinks has happened to oneself. Frijhoff calls this a 'memory recall' or 'recalled memory'.[8] This creates a broadly supported involvement in historical developments that have helped determine the identity of a city. One realizes that history is not a closed period, but that it continues to work in the present and in the people who live in that present.

The Razzia Monument Rotterdam foundation, founded in 2020 by two sons of forced laborers, has taken the initiative to set up a place of remembrance for the raid.[9] Both initiators envision a monumental work of art in a public location that can serve as a place for commemoration, reflection and meeting for all Rotterdammers. That spot has now been found in collaboration with the municipality of Rotterdam. Due to its location, the park on the Parkkade, next to the 'Van Ommerenhaven', connects all twelve assembly points of the round-up. With a view of the Maas, the two banks of the Meuse and Schiedam, located downstream, are connected here. In addition, the Meuse can be regarded as a metaphor for the involuntary journey to the east of the Netherlands and Germany and the eventual return – for most at least – to their home city.

A design for it Razzia Monument with a series of photos as a starting point

After finding a location, the search for a suitable artist could also start. The Razzia Monument Rotterdam foundation was assisted in this by the Visual Arts & Public Space (BKOR) program of Centrum Beeldende Kunst Rotterdam. Four artists from a long list were invited to make a sketch design. The design by visual artist Anne Wenzel (Schüttorf, 1972) was unanimously embraced. This design gives the city a monument and at the same time a work of art by a Rotterdam artist of international stature, whose work is not yet represented in the Rotterdam Sculpture Collection.

Although the design is still in a development phase and the details will be worked out further, it is already clear what Anne Wenzel is all about when commemorating the raid. Her ceramic sculpture group focuses on the emotions caused by the sudden and abrupt separation between people.

In her thorough preliminary investigation, Anne Wenzel came across photos that date from the period before the raid. Families with father, mother, siblings smile at the camera. Young couples in love and married pose arm in arm. The situation is idyllic. The portrayed do not yet know of the terrible event that lies in the future and which will separate them from each other.

These photos not only bear personal stories, but also tell the universal story of the raid. For Anne Wenzel, they not only symbolize the abrupt separation caused by the raid, but they also refer to all the photos that the deportees and those who stayed at home carried with them to keep the memory of their loved ones alive, so as not to lose hope. to keep the homesickness under control. The photos also make it painfully clear – with the knowledge we can now project onto them – that an idyll can suddenly turn into a nightmare. Wenzel took the photos with a man and a woman as the starting point for her design.

The sublime in the oeuvre of Anne Wenzel

Ceramic is the material in which Wenzel feels at home. She uses it in a monumental way in her work, pushing the boundaries of the material. She transforms the soft, heavy clay into impressive images with a great sense of detail and aesthetics. But as soon as the perfect form seems to have been reached, Wenzel attacks the images with brute force: she cuts, she scratches, she smashes, she dents. She also makes the kiln do destructive work by allowing the images to collapse under gravity and heat. A work is not finished until the destruction has reached ultimate perfection. In this respect, Wenzel's oeuvre can rightly be counted in the aesthetic category of 'the sublime', as juxtaposed by the eighteenth century British-Irish philosopher Edmund Burke (1729 – 1797) with a concept such as 'the beautiful'.

With his famous book A Philosophical Inquiry into the Origin of Our Ideas of the Sublime and the Beautiful Burke made an important contribution to modern art theory. Burke argued that 'the sublime' was different from the superlative of 'the beautiful', as was thought until that time. In the introduction to the book, Burke's ideas are interpreted as follows: “In addition to the pleasure aroused by beauty, there is another sensation associated with fear, terror, and horror. This is the aesthetic category of the sublime. Sublime is everything that intimidates, threatens and awes us. (…) But as long as we are not in real danger of being destroyed by the sublime object, we derive a sense of pleasure from the realization of our safety in the face of something terrifying. This pleasure means that the sublime, despite the completely different nature of the feelings it evokes, can be regarded as the counterpart of beauty (…) Burke sees the sublime as a compelling and irresistible force, which evokes violent and overwhelming emotions”.[ 10]

With her images, Anne Wenzel manages to evoke intense and overwhelming emotions. Her way of working, in which construction and deconstruction follow each other, is closely related to her theme. Wenzel examines the representation of power, heroism and violence and the impact this has on society. Based on current political developments, she draws parallels with history and art history. In her often large and complex installations, she builds up symbols of power and then affects them. Robust architectural structures have fallen into ruins, heroic busts stand as though badly wounded and gaudy victory trophies have lost all their luster. An enormous chandelier, which seems to have come straight out of a palace of a powerful ruler, has clattered to the floor. The power and splendor have apparently reached their limit. The exploits have faded.

Research into the iconography of commemoration

Anne Wenzel has been researching the iconography of commemoration for years. In her studio is a shelf full of books about wars: from the First and Second World War to recent wars. Wenzel traveled to memorial sites of these wars. She recorded the monuments and the associated rituals in a series of photo books. Wenzel photographed monuments to the First World War in Ypres, Belgium. She noticed that every country has its own monument and deals with it in a specific way. Some monuments are cherished, others are forgotten or neglected. According to Wenzel, this says something about the way in which we now want to deal with the past and how we want to remember history.[11] And that relationship changes over time.

In the installation Requiem of Heroism, which Wenzel showed in Museum Boijmans Van Beuningen in 2010, she has caused the overwhelming and manipulative architecture that characterizes these memorial sites to collapse. Wreaths are faded and desolate. Wenzel shows us the transience of heroism, of splendor and magnificence. She thus questions the phenomenon of commemorating by examining existing monuments. In addition to the imposing installation, smaller works are created in the same series with the subtitle 'Monument I, II, III and IV'.

When Wenzel is invited in 2020 to make a design proposal for the Anne Frankplein in 's-Hertogenbosch and to also design a work of art for the square, she decides that commemoration and meeting should be central. In an environment with trees and benches, which invite you to stay, she places a majestic bird on a high pedestal. The diary of Anne Frank, in which she describes that she feels like a caged bird, inspired Wenzel for this design. Wenzel lets the bird fly away; towards freedom. In doing so, she emphasizes a positive force. The work makes us reflect on what freedom means and encourages us never to lose hope of it.

Although Anne Wenzel has explored the influence of power and violence in the Razzia Monument still raises the issue, it is done from the perspective of the victims. This shifts the central theme to tragedy and vulnerability. Wenzel models a standing woman and a kneeling man as one pair of sculptures. Their bodies touch each other. Once carefully constructed, Wenzel cuts the couple, who in the elaboration becomes more than human-sized, from each other, just as lovers, relatives and friends were brutally separated from each other by the roundup. The act of cutting symbolizes the impact of the roundup. Wenzel accentuates the places where the images have been cut apart with an almost fluorescent orange color. This has a clear signaling function and seems to want to warn of the danger that is always lurking and of the injuries caused by wars and violence. The orange shapes not only symbolize pain, but also show a bond. No matter how great the physical distance, the man and the woman will always remain mentally connected.

By placing the separated man and woman at a distance from each other, their vulnerability becomes palpable. They stand alone. The dark man has become a shadow for the woman. He is absent. The woman is a white shadow to the man; only an image left in his memory or in a photograph in black and white, the only thing he can cling to. With this work Anne Wenzel refers in various ways to the importance of photography in memory. A photo is solidified history, a carrier of memories and a catalyst for emotions. But photos also spark conversations, prompt friends and family to come together, exchange stories and recall events. And that is also what Anne Wenzel aims at with this work. It Razzia Monument should become part of life in Rotterdam and invite people to come together and pass on stories to each other. In this way, it makes us learn from the past and at the same time realize that families are still being torn apart, people are being driven apart and deprived of their freedom in the present. This transforms the individual suffering of the two figures into a metaphor for the universal suffering caused by power and violence.


[1] BA Sijes, The Razzia of Rotterdam, 1951/1984, p. 214
[2] René J. Versluis, In the footsteps of a forced labourer, Rotterdam, 2010, p. 13
[3] BA Sijes (see note 1), p. 215
[4] The French historian Pierre Nora (1931) revived the idea of ​​the locus memoriae from classical antiquity in 1991 in his research and seven-volume publication Les Lieux de memoire, in which he recorded all possible places of remembrance in his country.
[5] Willem Frijhoff wrote an interesting book about remembering in relation to our dealings with the past: The fog of history. About remembering, forgetting and historical memory, Nijmegen, 2011
[6] The plaques are located in the World Trade Center Rotterdam, City Hall, at the tram depot and in the Feyenoord Stadium and were placed there in 1945, 1984, 2004 and 2010 respectively.
[7] Willem Frijhoff (see note 5), p. 42
[8] Ditto (see note 5), p. 15
[9] For detailed information see: www.razziamonument.nl
[10] Edmund Burke, A Philosophical Inquiry into the Origin of Our Ideas of the Sublime and the Beautiful, Groningen, 2018 (translation of the original 1757 edition), p. 23
[11] The word monument is derived from the Latin word 'monumentum' and means 'that which remembers'.


Flos Wildschut is an art historian and independent curator

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