The Razzia of Rotterdam

Aktion Rosenstock

On the evening of 9 November 1944 8,000 German troops were put into action in ‘Aktion Rosenstock’. Quietly a cordon of troops was thrown round Rotterdam and Schiedam. All important bridges and strategic points were cordoned off, trams ran no longer and telephone communications were obstructed. On the two following days over 52,000 Rotterdammers and Schiedammers between seventeen and forty were rounded up and transported to Germany to do hard labour there. This means that the Razzia of Rotterdam is the largest round-up ever by the German National Socialist regime, wherever in the occupied territories. Indeed it means an outrageous action people talked about a lot in the rest of the Netherlands.

The resistance paper Vrij Nederland wrote: ‘Fifty thousand Dutchmen let themselves move like sheep and an equal number of women stand by helplessly and see how their husbands and sons are lead defencelessly to Hitler’s slaughterhouse.’ The historiography (Sijes) places the event in a more realistic light: the fact was that escape was sheer impossible.

Men from all over Rotterdam and Schiedam, from all districts, from different backgrounds, all were ordered out of their houses, put behind bars and transported. The razzia struck the whole city. It struck the Rotterdammer because the women and relatives left behind just had to manage and struggle along and survive, often without income, and this too in the Winter of Starvation.

The boys and men who were on the way did not spend much time on long term prophesying. They lived from day to day for the most, because daily life was full of dangers. During the journey the transported Mr Wim Leer in ‘t Veld saw a Jewish man be shot down right in front of his eyes. The man was then kicked into the ice cold river IJssel. All his life Wim has never wanted to go to Germany for a holiday. Another partner in misfortune Mr Jan Hoek, tells about the situation after the liberation, when even being out of danger and safe was still far away. “Two boys were sleeping at a farm and what happened then? It was in the evening and then this one boy came back, crying: his buddy had been shot by an SSer because this man had demanded that place for himself to sleep. That boy said ‘The war is over now, just stop it.’ But that SSer just didn’t. He kept on, the boy refused and so he shot down the boy. His friend came to us crying. We buried him in a white coffin. With nothing else …” (Jan Hoek at 17)

The story does not stop at the return home of the transported men. The same men who survived the hard labour in Germany began rebuilding the city straight after their return: 52,000 men of the razzia as well as the forty thousand men earlier transported to the Arbeitseinsatz. The port had to be put into operation as fast as possible and businesses had to be housed again, for instance in the new Groothandelsgebouw, and other locations.

Work had the first priority over housing. Metalworkers, postmen, bricklayers, architects, bakers, insurance agents and stevedores set to work without dwelling too long on the what had happened. Those who had stayed behind in Rotterdam and lived through the winter of starvation, also took up the thread again. Rebuilding the port and trade and industry was of the utmost importance for the post- war reconstruction of the Netherlands. All these people have put the city on the map again.
Strangely enough the Rotterdam razzia is an unknown phenomenon in the Netherlands. Surely NIOD historian Ben Sijes already in 1951 mapped out what happened. However, the razzia has never become a household word for the elderly Rotterdammers, leave alone young people or the rest of the Netherlands. The reason may be that after the war people did not speak about it much. The city and the port had to be rebuilt, so the Dutch rolled up their sleeves and worked hard. What was more, many razzia victims had had experiences that were difficult to share. Also Mr Albert Oosthoek, Rotterdam historian, confirms that the razzia has remained unknown, both at local and national level, in Rotterdam, Schiedam and in the rest of the Netherlands.

A number of investigations shows that young people’s knowledge of the history of the Second World War could well be a lot better. For most young Dutch the cruelties and the sufferings and violence of war are none of their business. However, it is of vital importance to know, both in historical perspective and the world of today. ‘Without our empathy with victims, indifference to far away conflicts comes nearer,’ the Dutch National Committee 4-5 May states in the ‘National Freedom Investigation’. The Second World War is about universal themes like the individual and the masses, collaboration and resistance, authority and obedience. Project Journey of the Razzia shows what happens with individuals in a society under extreme pressure and repression.
Mr Jaap Folst, then seventeen, was one of the transported men. Until today he is still surprised that he has come out of it alive. “No one can explain what it does to you if you haven’t been through it yourself.” Nevertheless Folst thought that one thing and another obviously had to be explained. “If only to hand on to younger generations how intolerance can end in such excesses”. In 1994 Folst took the initiative to commemorating the Razzia of Rotterdam. That had a sequel and in 2010, after five earlier commemorations, Folst together with Mayor Aboutaleb unveiled the razzia commemoration plaque in the Feijenoord Stadium; the spot where so many Rotterdammers had to assemble in anticipation of their transport.

They were young men then. Today -getting on in years by now- they meet annually during the commemoration of the razzia and exchange stories. “You know, talking to one another is worth such a lot”, Jaap Folst says in an interview with a journalist. The story states: “There should be thousands of townsmen for whom the razzia of November 1944 and what followed is still a reality, forever images that do not fade in time, even after all those years. Even if time flies.

The commemoration makes the interest in the razzia grow. This is a fascinating history very well showing what it means if you have to struggle to survive in a situation where you have nowhere to go, transported to a country with its back against the wall, and preparing for the last defence.

“It is so good that more attention will be paid to the commemoration of the razzia in Rotterdam of 10 and 11 November 1944. In comparison with the bombing of Rotterdam in May 1940 the razzia has been scarcely commemorated. We must keep on honouring the victims and let them live on in the history of our city.” Mayor Ahmed Aboutaleb spoke these words during a commemoration in the Grote- of Sint Laurenskerk, a church in Rotterdam. He mentioned the two dates 14 May 1940, the day when the heart of the city was destroyed by German bombing, and 10 November 1944, when 52,000 men like slaves were transported by the Germans, two black days in the history of Rotterdam.
‘Grandpa, what really happened in the Second World War?‘ This question will be asked less and less often since the number of grandpas and grandmas who consciously lived during the war and the razzia has decimated. Only one to two hundred Dutch lived during the war as an adult. How should we continue commemorating and passing on memories today? According to a recent estimation no more than two hundred out of the 52,000 transported men where still alive in 2014. It looked as if , at that time, only a few could tell about the razzia, straight from the horse’s mouth. Commemorating, keeping alive the history of the people and the events that made Rotterdam what it is today, would have been a lot more difficult without these witnesses.

According to Ms Ann Rigney, professor of literary theory at Utrecht University, studying the strength of stories in the (collective) memory, it is often grandparents who are crucial in passing on history. “Often children have to free themselves from parents, but when the grandparents attain a great age, young people like to know very much how it was in the old days. And in turn the grandparents themselves too like to tell.” (Source: Trouw 04-05-12)

The problem of the untold stories and the lack of knowledge and consciousness demanded a solution like Steven Spielberg invented. After shooting his film ‘Schindler’s List’ he set up the ‘Survivors of the Shoah Visual History Foundation’ in 1994 in order to interview survivors all over the world. The testimonies collected by Spielberg are meant for research but can also be viewed by the public in the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, among other places. The archives hold a collection of nearly 52,000 interviews in 32 languages from 65 countries. This means that they are the most extensive visual history archives in the world.

The Dutch Ministry of Health, Welfare and Sport has initiated a project similar to Spielberg’s. Between 2007 and 2010 over 23 million was put up for the preservation and better accessibility of important inheritance material about the Second World War. This happened as part of the programme Inheritance of the War. 221 projects received a grant. However, again the Razzia of Rotterdam cannot be found. It is missing too on the NIOD website

“The Razzia of Rotterdam was a unique event for the Netherlands” Steven Sage states, a historian working for the United States Holocaust Museum. Therefore the Rotterdammers who lived through the razzia deserve to be admitted to the Dutch canon of the Second World War. The foundation Journey of the Razzia wants to achieve this aim in a particular way.

It is important that the awareness of the Razzia of Rotterdam increases and that this event, so important for the Netherlands and the DNA of Rotterdam and Schiedam, will enter the public eye. The project Journey of the Razzia, based on testimonies by the razzia veterans, made the recording of this unknown cultural heritage possible, as well as opening it up for both Rotterdam and a national audience to commemorate in the future. 

During the Razzia of Rotterdam on 10 and 11 November 1944 52,000 men between seventeen and fourth were rounded up and next transported to Germany. Only a small number knew to escape. For the German occupier the razzia was a greater success than expected. The resistance paper Vrij Nederland [Free Netherlands] on 14 December 1944 wrote:

‘Fifty thousand Dutchmen let themselves move like sheep and an equal number of women stand by helplessly and see how their husbands and sons are lead defencelessly to Hitler’s slaughterhouse.’

The condemnation by the resistance paper was devastating and wrongful, but got no answer. After the war the deported Rotterdammers did not talk much with one another about the razzia and their experiences. The city had to be rebuilt and the motto was look ahead.
But what happened exactly on 10 and 11 November 1944, and how could this happen? The men complied with the summons to report because they were afraid of reprisals by the Nazis. Moreover the Germans created the impression that it all would turn out better than expected: it would last only a few days. Parents, neighbours had to take decisions quick as a flash, and all this while the Germans forced their entrance into the houses with their rifles at the ready, and the city completely surrounded. The condemnation by Vrij Nederland was a bit too easy …

The razzia of Rotterdam happened almost seventy years ago. The story is still not very well known. Is it important to know precisely what happened then? Mr Ben Sijes thinks so. In his investigation in 1951 he worked towards:

‘A better understanding of the complex relation between individual and community, individual and environment, in the modern society – a relationship, analysed and uncovered here of one of the most shocking catastrophes that struck the Dutch people in the Second World War.’

The visual monument Journey of the Razzia will consist of the stories of the transported Rotterdammers recorded in scientific archives and made accessible to the public through an interactive website. The men speaking were boys of about nineteen years old then. They tell about either cooperating or going into hiding, either obeying or resisting. They tell about camaraderie too, about persevering, about returning home and the reconstruction and recovery of Rotterdam.

Journey of the Razzia seeks to tell the story of the razzia again. So that eye witnesses at the time, assisted by innovative techniques and new media, may cast light on the complex relationship between individual and community in society at the time, by which we are able to draw a comparison with events today and may contribute to an informed citizenship and social cohesion in the end.