Until May, 1940, Rotterdam was an elegant city of canals and stately historic houses in the Amsterdam style. It was a fine example of the Dutch genius for constructing beautiful cities where once, there were only water and swamps.
Then the Luftwaffe appeared in the skies and demolished Rotterdam within a few hours.
There was nothing left of it – except, ironically, the St Laurens church near the city center.
Built in the time of Erasmus, the St. Laurens church is portrayed in many fine old sketches and paintings done in the time of Rembrandt (copies of these can be seen today on a touch screen in the restored church).
The St. Laurens church with its single, tall tower was badly damaged but it was still standing after the aerial blitz was over.
May, 1940: the day Rotterdam died.
The bombing of Rotterdam was the first example of an aerial bombing of a city.
Before then it was considered to be a possibility, but no one had ever done it.
The Nazis were the first to test the limits of the new technology. The total destruction of Rotterdam was meant to serve as a showcase of Nazi air power – and as a warning to the rest of the world.
Unfortunately, it also served as an example of what technology could do, an example which was soon emulated by the British and Americans.
Near the center of Rotterdam today, there is a statue commemorating the bombing of Rotterdam.
It is called ‘Devastated City’(‘Verwoeste Stadt’)
Designed by a French sculptor named Ossip Zadkine and erected a few years after the war, it is the most graphic portrayal of the horror of aerial bombing ever made. There is a surrealistic figure standing with its mask like face looking at the sky and its arms stretched upwards, as if it is at once pleading with the sky and at the same time, expressing its horror and fear. It is a shell of a human being, its chest and its body is hollow. The solid parts of its body are the arms and legs; they are grotesquely out of proportion, the outstretched arms longer than real arms, the legs much thicker, bent at the knees as if struggling to support the weight of the world. ‘Devastated City’ is a work of unparalleled genius and if you ever visit Rotterdam, go and see this statue.
If that’s the only reason you go there, its reason enough.
I don’t know how many times I’ve stopped at the small plain on which the statue is situated (near the Maritime Museum and a small harbor) and looked at ‘Devastated City’ and taken photos of it. Its gaunt, stark, haunting outlines are different in each kind of light, each kind of weather.
‘Devastated City’ is a timeless image like Picasso’s paining ‘Guernica’ of the aerial bombing of civilians in times of war.
It is an image which symbolizes the horror of all such bombings, wherever they have occurred. When I look at it, I see far more than the bombing of Rotterdam. I see the allied bombing of the German city of Dresden near the end of the war, a city which had no strategic value for the allies and in which over 90, 000 people, many of them refugees, died. I see the American ‘secret’ bombing of Eastern Cambodia between 1968 and 1975, during which somewhere between 500,000 and 1 million Buddhist peasants died.
I see the millions of people in Syria today – whose lives are being turned into Hell.
Oh yes, believe me, Zadkine’s ‘Devastated City’ is a statue for us all.