Historian and journalist Lotfi El Hamidi gave the eighth HJA Hofland lecture this year, entitled: Stone tears

In 2010 I visited Syria, a long-cherished dream trip to the cradle of civilization. That may sound strange now, but I am talking about the pre-war period, when the word 'Syria-goer' did not yet exist. It was a trip to a country that I mainly knew from history stories and from the sweet lines of poetry of the Syrian poet Nizar Qabbani. The romantic fool in me wanted to forget for a moment that there was a dictator in Damascus. Also the travel book that I took with me, with a friendly reminder at the back that it is better not to talk about politics in Syria.

Strolling through the old city of Damascus, I came across a poster of Pope John Paul II, who visited the Syrian capital in 2001, with the statement attributed to him: Have a vision, take the road to Damascus. A reference to the Apostle Paul, who fell from his horse near Damascus after being addressed by Jesus Christ in a vision. Although my experience was not as exalted, it was no less special.

During my stay I had a personal tour guide, a middle-aged Syrian who previously worked for a United Nations refugee agency. His hospitality was legendary. He took me to the famous tourist attractions, such as Palmyra, the 'city of a thousand columns', and the impressive crusader castle Krak des Chevaliers, but also to places where outsiders do not naturally visit. I drank tea in picturesque mountain villages, located on beautiful green hills in the border area between Syria and Lebanon. I ate the tastiest Levantine dishes in restaurants with courtyard gardens, hidden behind inconspicuous facades in the narrow alleys of old city districts. I got lost in the crowd in Aleppo's ancient covered souk.

At one point the travel guide felt free enough to ask me why Westerners undertake such perilous journeys to view 'old stones'. Without feeling personally addressed, I replied that in the West progress brought not only prosperity but also destruction. With some exaggeration I said that there were hardly any old stones left in Europe because of the war, by which I actually meant Rotterdam. I think it was Jules Deelder who once wrote that Rotterdam was the center of the universe. In poetic freedom almost anything is possible, especially when it comes to love for your own city. With some modesty I dare to say that the story of Rotterdam is the story of Europe.

What I of course could not have imagined at the time was that the story of Rotterdam would soon also become that of many Syrian cities.


Can you commemorate an event that you did not experience or experience? To sincerely commemorate you may have to have witnessed it. But you may not have to have been there to witness it. I remember an old Amnesty International campaign, with posters in bus shelters showing wars and hunger far away with the accompanying text: “It's not happening here, but it's happening now.” Following on from this, bearing in mind the proverb that the past is a distant land, I would like to say about the bombing of Rotterdam: it may have happened then, but it did happen here.

Growing up as a child of Moroccan migrants, the war was 'just' a historical event for me for a long time. In other words, a piece of history that I could be captivated by and fascinated by, but not something that I naturally had a personal connection with. This would not have been much different in other Moroccan and Turkish households. You can't blame the first generation of immigrants for that. They themselves came from countries with unresolved historical traumas, which were hardly talked about, if at all.

Of course, in primary school I learned about the Second World War, the persecution of the Jews, the Shoah, the years of occupation and the eventual liberation. What stuck with me about the bombing of Rotterdam was that we got a modern city center in return, the so-called miracle of reconstruction, like a blessing in disguise. That's how brief and distant this history was for me. At home I learned more about the Algerian war of liberation than about the Dutch war years.

There were therefore few notable ones in the public space places of memories to keep the memory of the war alive. In the city where fighting was so fierce in the May days of 1940 that the German army leadership carried out a large-scale bombardment to force the Netherlands to surrender, strangely enough you do not stumble across the war monuments. Because Rotterdammers do not look back but forward. Or something. The only times that the war became tangible to me came from the throats of white Rotterdammers, type 'original' Crooswijkers and Feijenoorders, who showed their hatred of Germany with the now disused swear word 'krauts', often in combination with the most nasty diseases that you can think of. That went further than the lame I-want-my-bike-back comment that I heard elsewhere when it came to Germans. For some Rotterdam residents, the war wound was clearly still not healed after more than half a century.

No, appropriating the war did not come naturally, I had to read up on that later, hear stories from survivors, and walk through the city. In short, I had to become a witness.

I have been living on the west side of Kralingen for more than ten years now, within the so-called fire border, the part of Rotterdam that was destroyed by the German incendiary bombs. The fire boundary is now demarcated by black and red tiles with a silhouette of the statue on top The destroyed city by the French-Belarusian artist Ossip Zadkine, a Heinkel bomber and a destroyed building, against the backdrop of large flames. The tiles already stand out during the day - appropriate, after all, the bombing took place in broad daylight - but especially from the evening hours, when they are illuminated. A permanent visual reminder of the sea of ​​fire that smoldered for days.

The street names in my neighborhood are named after local resistance fighters. Some street signs state in smaller letters that these fighters were executed for sabotage actions or assassination attempts on the German occupiers and their collaborators. The mass execution at the foot of the Oostzeedijk, just in front of the St. Lambertus Church in April 1945, in which twenty resistance members were shot - was infamous - an act of revenge by the Germans after the murder of a collaborationist police officer, who turned out to be a member of the SS . A memorial at the scene of the disaster commemorates 'those who fell'.

In short, you cannot avoid the war in Kralingen.

Walking through the neighborhood, I try to imagine the moment when the Luftwaffe bombers flew over the city. That's not that difficult. Henk Hofland, who lived in the same neighborhood as a young teenager, described vividly how he experienced the bombing. The German bomb that fell on a house down his street caused such a shock wave that his father shouted him and his mother out of the cellar. Out into the open, he then watched the terrifying swarm of bombers, flying slow and low, or in Hofland's words, “as if they were taking a midair walk.” At night he saw the city center burning. The bombing was nothing less than a “gigantic war crime,” he would later say. Great terror. A world that disappeared in fifteen minutes, and with it the end of Hofland's youth, without him knowing it at the time, of course. In the weeks after the bombing, he did what children in all their innocence cannot fail to do: play among the rubble. Perhaps that is why he had such a keen eye for what he called “relative trifles”; the big toy store that went up in flames, along with so many birthday wishes and childhood dreams. The injured pets that were put down after the bombing. With these examples of "small terror" the major crime becomes clearer, according to Hofland.


About a year after my Syrian trip, in 2011, civil protests against the dictatorial regime began in several places, following the nascent Arab Spring in North Africa. Anyone who knew the modern history of Syria knew that the revolution could not possibly end without violence. In 1982, the Syrian city of Hama was razed to the ground when fundamentalists there started an uprising against the regime of Hafez al-Assad. His successor, son Bashar al-Assad, apparently still had the script in the presidential palace, because the protests in 2011 were also bloodily suppressed. However, this was followed by a spiral of violence that culminated in one of the bloodiest wars in recent history.

At the height of the Syrian war, or rather low point, Aleppo was under heavy siege by Assad's army, with support from the Russian air force. The ruthless bombing, a proven Russian tactic, destroyed the ancient and illustrious city. The images of concrete skeletons of apartment buildings and gray plains became the dystopian view of the once bustling Arab metropolis. Unforgettable are the burned-out city buses that were positioned vertically as a barricade to protect citizens from snipers. During the eventual encirclement of the rebel stronghold, starvation was also used as a war tactic. People had nowhere left to go.

When we talk about becoming a witness to an event you were not present at, we cannot ignore the documentary For the same to. In this ultimate war testimony, citizen journalist Waad al-Kateab shows how she experienced the events in her home city of Aleppo for five years. She was there as a student when the peaceful and hopeful protests began, and she remained in Aleppo as the violence escalated. During the siege, Waad married her best friend, a surgeon, and together they had a daughter named Sama, Arabic for 'heaven'. A “longing for a heaven without fighter planes, without bombings,” said Waad, as they hid in the hospital that became the target of bombings. The uncensored images of dead civilians, injured children and crying mothers pass by. But Waad continued to film to show the daily reality of the war, how aid workers gave everything to save people's lives, and above all: how she and her friends did not give up hope for a better future. Until it wasn't possible anymore.

The recordings were made 'for Sama', but the good listener knows: Sama stands for humanity.

Back to Rotterdam. In December 2016, when Aleppo was about to fall to government forces, around three hundred people, mainly Syrian refugees, gathered at the statue The destroyed city from Zadkine for a wake. I was there that evening, at Plein 1940, at this impromptu meeting. People laid candles at the foot of the statue, speeches were made, and there was singing. But despite everything, there was an atmosphere of sadness and defeat. The presence of the Free Syrian Army flags was intended to mask the despair. With the impending fall of Aleppo, the fire of revolution also extinguished.


Everyone seeks recognition for suffering, historical and contemporary, and May 4 is usually used as a kind of crowbar to draw much-needed attention to the overlooked deaths. But is Remembrance Day the opportunity to do that? In a chapter from his book Rear view mirrors. Essays about the past in the present from 2021, the late Ben van der Velden reflects on the Dutch commemorative culture around Remembrance Day. The Rotterdam-born former correspondent of NRC Handelsblad describes the substantive change of May 4, from initially commemorating soldiers and resistance heroes to mainly victims of the Second World War. He then notes that nowadays in the Netherlands there is "a permanent need for discussion about what exactly the annual commemoration of the dead is about." According to Van der Velden, a unique Dutch phenomenon, because he was not familiar with it in the surrounding European countries.

Writer Robert Vuijsje has been fearing the 'de-Judaization' of May 4 for years. Where Jews once formed a significant minority, they now have to share minority status with other discriminated minorities. Worse still, Vuijsje notes, Jews are now even considered part of the dominant population group. His grandparents should have known that, less than a century ago. If all victims are commemorated on May 4, there is a risk that the betrayal, deportation and extermination of the Jews in Europe will be put into perspective.

I signed up a few years earlier The Green Amsterdammer himself made a comment about the ritual discussion surrounding Remembrance Day, and then came to more or less the same conclusion as Ben van der Velden and Robert Vuijsje. In a catch allMay 4 commemoration loses its substantive meaning. The question may be raised as to who gives substance to that meaning. Remembrance Day was once created in a country that was somewhat clear in terms of demographic composition, with a shared frame of reference. Successive generations were given the words 'never again' as the ultimate lesson of the war, as a moral command. But now a new generation is asking itself: if we do not commemorate the dead elsewhere, if we are not allowed to draw parallels to the present, what is the point of that historical lesson? Is 'never again' a geographically, not to say ethnically, defined message?

I suspect that Remembrance Day will remain a tricky issue and no one will be completely satisfied with the content of the Fourth of May. But perhaps the Rotterdam commemoration of the fourteenth is much better suited to the so-called 'broadening' of commemoration.

Because while you can call the industrialized German murder of the Jews unique, you cannot say the same about the German bombings. The Germans were the first to use bombers to destroy densely populated cities to bring the enemy to their knees. In 1937, the Luftwaffe carried out this war tactic on the ancient Basque city of Guernica during the Spanish Civil War. That bombing turned out to be an exercise for the larger work during the Second World War, two years later. In 1939 it was the Polish capital Warsaw's turn. And on May 14, 1940, Rotterdam, with which the city joined an illustrious list of cities that were destroyed in modern history by bombs from heaven.

It is true that war begets technology and technology begets war. But no matter how advanced the weapons and what names are coined for modern warfare – 'Blitzkrieg,shock and awe', 'special military operation', or, perhaps the most vicious euphemism, 'mowing the lawn' – the outcome often remains the same: mass destruction.

That is what makes the icon of the fire border tile in Rotterdam so strong: everyone can imagine the bomber, the burning houses and the desperate arms of Zadkine's statue raised to heaven. And I think that is partly why I found the Syrian vigil at Zadkine's statue in 2016 so moving. Syrian refugees, sometimes just arrived in Rotterdam, felt safe there. No one thought the meeting was inappropriate. It seemed intended that way. It was as if Rotterdam and Aleppo communicated with each other, and Rotterdam said: I know how it feels.

Poet JC van Schagen, who took shelter from the German bombardment in a basement of the Rotterdam city hall, wrote about his experience: “The blows, the blows, and then the thunder of the concrete, the ground waves and we are suddenly all bats – a crowd of black bats in lime mist.” These are lines that you can effortlessly repeat during modern-day bombings. Zadkine's sculpture, which he “sculpted with tears”, could have been placed in any destroyed city. If cities could cry, they would all shed the same stone tears.

The abrupt loss of life is of course the greatest tragedy in war. But for the many survivors, the tragedy is only beginning. Such as the grief of relatives for their loved ones, the trauma of having witnessed death and destruction, often accompanied by the so-called 'survivor's guilt'. But also: the loss of the familiar environment, physical spaces where lives were formed. The 'city without a heart', as Zadkine's image symbolizes, is about both the erased city center and the disappeared 'anchor points' that inextricably linked the residents. A social fabric is torn apart in one fell swoop. You become a stranger, an orphan in your own city.

UN Special Rapporteur on Housing Balakrishnan Rajagopal wrote an article earlier this year The New York Times about the word 'domicide', following the destruction of Gaza. The term is a contraction of the Latin words domus (house) and cide (from caedere, to kill), and indicates the deliberate destruction of home and hearth. When homes and public buildings are destroyed, not only people are killed and injured, but tangible memories also go up in smoke. Spaces where life events such as birth, marriage and death take place, where friendships are forged and intimate relationships entered into, where traditions are kept alive and new cultures emerge. In short, it's not just about stones.

Or as Henk Hofland noted with regard to Rotterdam: on the eve of the German bombing there were 650.000 Rotterdam residents - on May 14, 1940, 650.000 cities were destroyed.

The indiscriminate bombing of entire neighborhoods should be considered war crimes, according to a growing number of legal scholars and human rights activists.


Anyone can be a witness, of both the past and the present. Anyone who reads the stories about the bombing of Rotterdam has become a witness. Who the war documentary For the same looks at is a witness. And anyone who now watches the images of the destruction of Gaza is a witness.

Do not be indifferent, think about the "relative trifles." As the Palestinian Khaled Juma wrote in 2014:

“Oh rascal children of Gaza
You who constantly disturbed me with your screams under my window
You who filled every morning with rush and chaos
You who broke my vase and stole the lonely flower on my balcony
Come back –
And scream as you want
And break all the vases
Steal all the flowers
come back
Just come back”