A story by Herman Romer, against the background of burning Rotterdam, the day after the bombardments of May 14, 1940
‘Watch out,’ said his mother, repeating her earlier warning. ‘Keep looking in front of you.’
It was the day after the bombing of the city and the surrender to the Germans. On the outskirts of the devastated centre, the dilapitated streets had been sealed off as quickly as possible, but by the mostly spared Hugo de Grootstraat, they came across a civil guard who was torn up by anger and inconsolable feelings, and after much persuasion eventually let them through. ‘It’s at your own risk,’ he emphasised.
On the journey to their residence in Bernardinastraat they passed under the dirty skies and through the ghostly streets, walking by ruins of houses, shops and offices, some of which were still burning, and having to jump over debris and shards of glass.
Overcome by fear, tension and curiosity, time and again he sneaked a look at the devastated terrain and the smouldering ruins, which seemed to have been flattened by a giant sledgehammer. His view into the ruined buildings was obscured by the damage that had wiped out the inhabitants. And all was tensely silent like a horror film.
The potent smells of burning cloth, paper and wood engulfed his nostrils, worsened by the stink of human and animal flesh. A soft, sweet warmth hung in the air. It’s likely that, at that moment, the worst fires were raging elsewhere in the city and a limited number of aid workers were starting to deal with them. Now and then, black confetti fell down on them from the sky, burnt fragments that floated on the breeze.
‘The wind has turned,’ said his father. ‘That’s a pity.’
‘Why?’ his mother wanted to know.
‘I wouldn’t be surprised when still more went to hell now. The fire brigade is already unable to handle things.’
On Goudsesingel they passed burnt out and overthrown cars. Parts of the tram tracks were hidden from view or completely gone, and the broken overhead wires hung limply. Broken gas and water pipes lay strewn on the ground and here and there they came across the bodies of horses, dogs and cats.
‘I don’t see any more bodies,’ he heard his mother whisper.
‘No.’ His father’s voice was equally hushed. ‘They will have been taken away in any case.’
On Pompenburgsingel, only humble fragments of the once luxurious Abraham Tuschinski Grand Theatre remained. The horror of Frankenstein’s monster, which had played not long ago, had now also penetrated the world outside.
On the opposite side of the street, a group of German soldiers marched towards them. Their noisy boots marched past, young guys with red, clean-scrubbed faces on their way to the perfectly defined future promised to them by the Führer.
‘Look straight ahead,’ repeated his mother, her own head turned away.
‘We’ll get them all right,’ his father said fiercely. ‘We’ll get them all right, the bloody Hun.’
‘You think so?’ his mother’s voice sounded vague.
‘You can count on it. The English and the French aren’t going to abandon us, are they?’
‘Did you see them yesterday? No. And whether or not we get those Germans, we’ve lost our city.’
Silently the three walked for a while, half tripping over unanticipated obstacles now and then.
‘Look!’ he suddenly called out. ‘A zebra!’
Excitedly he stared in the direction of a burnt out truck behind which the animal had disappeared, possibly into a side street, but he couldn’t see through all the rubble.
His parents continued to look in the direction he had pointed out.
‘I don’t see anything,’ said his father. ‘You are joking, right?’
‘He could be right,’ observed his mother. ‘Who’s to say that the Zoo wasn’t hit?’
‘That’s a nice story. Soon we’ll come across a lion.’
‘Yeah, go ahead and scare the boy.’
But his father, with an odd voice, chose another topic.
‘It won’t be easy to get a roof over our heads.’
‘We can move in with mother. Just until we can find something else.’
‘Yeah sure, and I’m a teapot.’
Walking ahead and staring at the burnt out tram, he listened to his parents’ conversation. A conversation that had been played out again and again since yesterday.
‘And why not?’
‘Like you don’t already know. Me and your old man rubbing each other up the wrong way all the time.’
‘It’s all your fault. You get wound up too easily.’
‘You know your father’s got a grudge against me. And I would rather stay independent.’
‘But where can we go? To a school? Sleep in the same room with lots of others? Do you call that independent?’
‘I don’t want to have to say “thank you” to anyone. Don’t get worked up, I’ll think of something. And besides, it’s a dog-house, that basement room at your parents.’
From Pompenburgsingel they went via Stroveer on to Katshoek, an inhospitable landscape with the occasional recognizable sight, so as to enter Bernardinastraat via Van der Duijnstraat. Yesterday, running away in a panic whilst bombs fell somewhere behind their house, he had seen that the building housing the greengrocer’s on the corner of Van der Duijnstraat and Katshoek was burning and all that remained now were smoking ruins.
Burnt-out remains also faced them in Bernardinastraat, where they passed a neighbour stooped over the rubble, wearing rubber gloves and pulling bits away from where his ground-floor apartment had been. The man barely responded to his parents’ greeting, so preoccupied was he with the slow work.
‘Everything is gone,’ said his mother in an uncertain voice, looking at the ruins of their own home. ‘We’ll have to start all over again.’
He thought about his toys, about the laborious collection of the cowboy and indian figures he had bought in the French bazar in Hoogstraat, about his comics and books. He was terrified.
‘My books are gone,’ he exclaimed, half crying. ‘All my books are gone.’
‘It’s OK,’ said his mother, ‘you can get new ones.’
‘I don’t want new ones, I want my old ones.’
‘We’ll try to buy them again.’
In the mean time his father had been working with his bare hands in the wreckage of their home. So far, however, he had only found a dented kettle, which he held up triumphantly.
With knitted brow his mother looked beyond to the place behind the house where she used to hang up the washing to dry, which she had not got round to the day before.
‘I think I can see the washtub,’ she remarked.
His father turned around to where she pointed, and did indeed see the washtub lying under some debris, with half-burnt washing still in it.
‘Look. Your Sunday dress. The pretty blue one with the white dots.’
His mother carefully tried to fish the clothes out of the washtub, but stopped when they fell to bits.
He wiped his tears away, glanced at the still-toiling neighbour and clambered further over the rubble to the back of their former home where, squatting, his eyes hunted around. Just as he came across something next to a burnt black beam, a wall came crashing down with a great noise in Schoterbosstraat, into which their street led. It was one of the few walls in the area that had remained standing. The cloud of dust attacked their nose and throat.
‘We will have to begin all over again,’ repeated his mother, after a fit of coughing.
‘Woman, we will just buy a couple of orange crates for a song so that we can sit down again,’ his father said, with forced cheer.
‘Yes, you’re always cutting corners.’
‘Maybe now the crisis is finally over I can finally get a job again.’ His father’s gaze fell on the smoking ruins around him.
‘Well,’ his mother replied, ‘it didn’t have to happen like this.’
His father, who hadn’t heard her reply, pulled the thermos out of the shopping bag they had brought along and poured her and himself a cup of coffee. Then he put the kettle that he had found into the bag. When he had finished his drink he slowly walked over to the man who was digging.
‘Coffee, mate?’ he kindly offered.
The man shook his head, with his back turned.
‘What are you looking for?’ The man muttered something incomprehensible in reply.
‘What’s that mate?’
‘My wife,’ he suddenly boomed without looking up. ‘I am looking for my wife.’
His father stood still for a few seconds, just like in a film that had been paused, then turned from his neighbour and stared at the others with a shocked look on his face.
‘Come on,’ his mother said nervously. ‘We should go, don’t you think?’ She threw his father a warning look, but the reason was not obvious to him.
Without another word to the man or each other, they walked awkwardly away, leaving the street again and going down Van der Duijnstraat, shocked and bewildered, their thoughts and feelings still confused. Above them a colossal airoplane with a swastika flew slowly with a low hum.
‘There goes another one of those butchers,’ said his father.
‘You won’t get anywhere by getting worked up,’ his mother said. ‘Let’s just think about what we have to do now.’
‘I’m not going to live with your mother.’
‘Don’t be so silly. It’s only temporary, isn’t it?’
‘No. I don’t want to be under their thumb. Each day is one day too many.’
‘We will talk about this later,’ said his mother calmly, while she turned towards him and began to stroke his hair. ‘And you, you don’t need to be scared. You’ll get all your books back again.’
‘Daddy, I saw a hand,’ he said suddenly.
His father suddenly stopped walking. ‘What did you say?’
‘I saw a hand under the rubble. Almost completely black.’
‘Are you sure?’ His father stood right next to him, towering high above him and looking down threateningly. ‘Is this
another one of your jokes? Like with the zebra?’
‘It isn’t a joke. And I really did see the zebra too.’
‘You’re sure, are you?’
‘Yes, I’m sure. At first I thought it was just nothing. But when I looked again I realized it was a hand.’
He tried to hide behind his mother, but his father grabbed him by the collar.
‘I didn’t see anything else.’
‘Where did you see it then?’ his father pressed. His voice had taken on a gruff tone.
‘Where the neighbours’ house used to be. At the back, near the yard, by a beam.’
‘Damn it,’ his father roared. ‘Why didn’t you say something earlier?’ He raised his hand, ready to strike.
‘Don’t hit him,’ pleaded his mother, tearing him away. ‘Don’t hit him.’
‘Why didn’t that boy say something earlier?’ His father turned to his mother now.
‘I didn’t dare,’ he cried in a shaky voice, diving behind his mother’s back. ‘I didn’t dare to because our neighbour was there. I was really scared.’
‘Did you hear that?’ his mother called to his father. ‘He was scared. You must understand that?’
His father looked at him again, but the threat in his eyes had been replaced with something else: something between
uncertainty and fear.
‘Come on. We are all going back.’
‘No,’ his mother exclaimed.
‘Yes,’ said his father. ‘That boy saw it, not me. So he will have to point it out to me first. If he’s right, then you two leave and I will stay to talk to our neighbour.’
‘Is that a good idea? I would rather that Hansje goes to grandma’s.’
‘He can go later. He just has to point out the place, from a distance. That is all.’
‘I don’t want to,’ he said, looking at the ground.
‘It’s only for a moment,’ said his mother in a soft voice. ‘Now we all have to be strong. You too.’
Back in the rubble of Bernardinastraat, with cautious glances at their neighbour he began, muffled and stuttering, to point out to his father where he had seen the hand. All the while trying to avoid that the lone figure plodding through the debris of his home would notice their return.
While his father, occasionally tripping and slipping backwards, scrambled messily over the debris to the indicated spot, he and his mother remained motionless, holding hands, watching in the background.
‘It will be alright again,’ she suddenly whispered to him.
He didn’t understand what she meant by her words but didn’t dare to speak because he was stunned by what was happening in front of him. Since the day before yesterday, so much had happened that he was still confused by, overwhelmed that his world could have collapsed so easily and filled with pressing questions that he would have to ask his parents about during the days to come.
When his father reluctantly returned to them, his face was grey. He nodded at his mother without mentioning what he had found.
‘Go to grandmother’s.’ His voice sounded hoarse. ‘I have to take care of this first.’
‘Be careful, will you.’
But the warning from his mother was lost. His father had already turned and set off in the direction of their neighbour.
‘Come,’ said his mother. ‘It’s been enough for one day. Grandma will be wondering what’s keeping us.’
Did he catch a glimpse of the zebra, again somewhere in the background on Pompenburgsingel? He thought so, but didn’t say anything to his mother. Because, who would believe him?
Shortly afterwards a troop of foreign soldiers passed them for the second time that afternoon: unmoved, their strong jaws pointing in the same direction. The helmets were creepy. So was the fearsome rhythm of the loud fall of their boots.
This has been published by OorlogsVerzetMuseum Rotterdam, commemorating the bombing and the victims of the city of Rotterdam, May 14th 1940.
The story ‘Black Confetti’ by Herman Romer was earlier published in Dutch as part of ‘De Vlammende Stad’, edited by Aprilis, 2005. ISBN 90 5994 0474.
The story takes place the day after the bombings.
Translation Hanneke Hart, Daniel Barker and Heleen Plaisier.
Copyright for the English Version OorlogsVerzetsMuseum Rotterdam and Herman Romer, Rotterdam.