By Inge Duine Translated and adapted by Elke Weesjes

Images: (from left to right) Cadaver and farm, Zeeland, 1953 © Dolf Kruger, Amphibious vehicle, Zierikzee, Zeeland, 1953 © Aart Klein Arrival flood evacuee on the dock in Rotterdam, 1953 © Ed van der Elsken, Debris, Schouwen, Zeeland, 1953 © Dolf Kruger

Many Americans are familiar with the story of the little Dutch boy who, while on his way to school, noticed the sea trickling in through a small hole in a dike. The boy famously averted disaster by plugging the hole with his finger. He stayed there all day and all night until the adults of the village found him and repaired the hole.

In the United States, this heroic tale—popularized by author Mary Mapes Dodge in her children’s novel Hans Brinker, or the Silver Skates (1865)—became symbolic for the Dutch fight against the water.

The real life equivalent of the tale (which ironically isn’t very popular in the Netherlands) took place during the 1953 North Sea Flood. The hero of this story is Dutch skipper Arie Evegroen who, rather than a finger, used his grain barge to plug a large hole in the dike along the river IJssel. With this courageous act, he reportedly saved the town of Nieuwerkerk from flooding.

Other towns weren’t as lucky. The damage and destruction caused by the North Sea Flood—in the Netherlands known as the watersnoodramp (flood disaster)—were enormous. A combination of a high spring tide and a severe windstorm over the North Sea caused an area of almost 500,000 acres to flood—1836 people died and 72,000 lost their homes. It was ten months before the last of the dike breaches was repaired and people felt protected from the sea again.

It might be expected that such a horrific and traumatizing event would inspire Dutch writers, poets, and filmmakers, but that wasn’t the case. Although some literature was published in the aftermath of the disaster—often featuring heroic stories in the vein of Arie Evergroen’s—it was meager compared to works dedicated to World War II and the German occupation of the Netherlands. Rather than creating a common knowledge of the disaster, the stories of the watersnoodramp faded into silence for years.

There were several reasons for this. Victims who lived in the hardest-hit region of Zeeland—a deeply religious province—saw the flood as God’s punishment for their sins and suffered in silence. Others saw the disaster as an unforeseen natural tragedy. In short, no one questioned whether anything but God or nature was responsible for the flood. Nor were survivors motivated—or willing—to give their account of the events. Consequently, non-fiction published after the disaster was rather one-sided, lacked human dimension, and was written “from above”—from the perspective of the powerful, the authorities, the heroes, and the saviors.

Decades later, though, people began to realize that the catastrophic conditions weren’t caused only by strong winds, storm surge, and heavy rainfall, but also by human error and technical failures. Encouraged by a new school of researchers, survivors finally began to share their personal experiences. This dynamic would completely alter the existing collective memory of the watersnoodramp.

Reconstructions of the disaster

Recently, we have seen a renewed cultural interest for the flood of 1953. Two novels were published, De verdronkene (The Drowned) by Margriet de Moor in 2005, and 1953 by Rik Launspach in 2009. The first Dutch movie about the flood, titled De storm (The Storm), was also released in 2009. It attracted half a million viewers, which is quite impressive in a country with a population of just under 17 million. The cultural memory of the watersnoodramp was advanced even further when a musical, simply called 1953, de musical went into production in 2011.

Two groundbreaking studies paved the way for this flurry of cultural expressions: De ramp, een reconstructie (The Disaster, a Reconstruction) by Kees Slager in 1992, and Het water en de herinnering (The Water and the Memory) by Selma Leydesdorff in 1993. Slager, a journalist known for his historical radio documentaries, set out to debunk the official historiography of the watersnoodramp. His book is based on interviews with more than 200 “ordinary” eyewitnesses and thorough archival research. Slager, unlike his predecessors, didn’t avoid important questions pertaining to responsibility and accountability. In the book’s conclusion, he clearly points a finger at the dike boards and councils that neglected the dikes’ maintenance (resulting in many weak spots and overall dike erosion), as well as the nation’s ineffective warning system and lack of national disaster plans. Based on meticulous research, a picture emerges of confusion, disorder, and sometimes even complete chaos. The exceptions, as described by Slager, include situations where a person assumed the role of leader and organized the disaster response. Slager successfully weaves eyewitness accounts and other materials into a seamless and balanced narrative of the watersnoodramp. As such he did exactly what the title of his book promises; he has completely reconstructed the disaster.

Images: (from left to right) Cemetery in flooded area, Zeeland, 1953 © Aart Klein, Berta de Baarland with her dog in an emergency shelter, Ossendrecht, 1953 © Ed van Wijk Washed up school desk, Zeeland, 1953 © Ed van Wijk

Leydesdorff— a professor of oral history and culture at the University of Amsterdam—also collected more than 200 oral testimonies for her book. Her intentions, however, were quite different from Slager’s. Het water en de herinnering focuses on the process of recollection and collective memory of the flood, and examines how this collective memory became part of the Dutch national identity. Within this context, Leydesdorff discusses survivor accounts that weren’t included in the official historiography. Rather than one coherent narrative, she has created a collage of different—and sometimes conflicting—experiences. Both authors, albeit through different approaches, were able to unearth previously untold stories.

The watersnoodramp in the media

News reports of the disaster—much like the literature that was published in its aftermath—were pragmatic. Rather than investigating causes of the disaster or exploring survivor experiences, news articles and television reports were upbeat, focused on disaster response, and highlighted efforts to help the disaster-stricken region.

This type of one-sided, non-critical news coverage was typical for the 1950s, a period characterized by the politico-denominational segregation of Dutch society, called verzuiling (pillarization). The country was vertically divided into several segments or pillars [zuilen] according to differing religious denominations and ideologies. Catholics, Protestants, social democrats, and liberals lived completely separate lives in closed-off communities. They had their own political parties, schools, hospitals, sport clubs, and media. People only bought their own pillar’s newspaper and as a result, journalists didn’t have to be particularly critical. Newspapers didn’t have to sell their stories, because there was little competition between papers (Wijfjes 2004).

Furthermore, WWII had just come to an end and, even though society was divided, people were instructed by their political leaders to unite in their efforts to rebuild the country (Leydesdorff 1993). Harmony was key in this process and dissenting or critical voices were discouraged. An example of this can be seen in documentary series, De bezetting (The Occupation) by famous Dutch historian Lou de Jong, which shows this tendency to fabricate a uniform experience. The show, which chronicles the German occupation of the Netherlands and was televised between 1960 and 1965, seemingly transcended any conflicts between different societal groups. “In De bezetting, memories of the war (…) were welded together and transformed into one coherent national history” (Van Vree 1995).

And so it was with the watersnoodramp until authors Slager and Leydesdorff shared the notion that the existing image of a homogenous experience was incorrect.

New memories

The historical recollection of the watersnoodramp was colored by sentiments such as trust, pride, and a sense of solidarity or unity that was prevalent in the post-war period. Stories about post-disaster heroism—now often debunked or nuanced—also featured in regional novels and children’s books published in the 1950s.

For example, in the 1953 children’s book Houen jongens! (Hold Tight Boys!) by K. Norel, protagonists, Aart and Klaas save their village Colijnsplaat from flooding during the North Sea Flood. Together with more than a hundred men, they pushed against the floodwalls that were about to give way to the water. People from all walks of life stood side by side when a school teacher who saw a big wave approaching, shouted “Houen jongens!”

Images: (from left to right) Military Personnel Building a Dam of Sand Bags, Kwartiersedijk of Zwingelspaansedijk, Fijnaart, Noord-Brabant, 1953 © Aart Klein, Boat With First Responders, Zeeland, 1953 © Ed van Wijk, First Responders Walk Passed a Collapsed House on the Molendijk in Gravendeel, 1953 © Ed van Wijk

The story elements were taken from a newspaper article that had inspired Norel, titled “Het wonder van Colijnsplaat. Vier rijen dik, arm in arm als menselijke zandzakken” (“The Miracle of Colijnsplaat. Four Rows Thick, Arm in Arm, Like Human Sandbags”). According to the article, a ship had also lodged in front of the weakened floodwall and helped to prevent the breach, yet the book and many newspaper articles emphasized the solidarity of the villagers: “The wave came and pushed the ‘living dike’ three feet forward, but the men pushed back. There they were, the rich farmer next to the ordinary peasant, the church elder next to the bibber, the pastor next to the heretic, friend next to enemy; the village had become one, a human chain of unity” (Dendermonde, 1953).

Such a heroic, Hans Brinker-style account seems almost too good to be true, and indeed it is. The real miracle (the ship averting the breach), did happen, but Slager discovered through eyewitness interviews that the fraternity and cohesion the media and the author of Houen jongens! describe was distorted. The number of people involved was also embellished: “Those men needed a good story,” said Piet Blom an alderman who was present that night. “Quite a few things were exaggerated. It isn’t true that more than a hundred men were gathered to push against the floodwalls, I didn’t count them but there could not have been more than 40” (Slager, 1992). The “Miracle of Colijnsplaat” came into being at a later date, when the story was featured in the newspapers and Norel’s book. These accounts suggest the people of Colijnsplaat were rewarded with safety for their bravery and solidarity, and it isn’t a lone example. Much of the 1950s reporting on the watersnoodramp was characterized by a similar and often exaggerated emphasis on miracles, heroism, unity, and solidarity.

Through survivors’ accounts—voices that had never been documented before—Slager and Leydesdorff were able to debunk many of these myths. They shed new light on the floods of 1953—not everyone was brave, heroic, or helpful and those in charge had no idea of the danger that was looming in the days before the storm and completely failed to take the proper precautions.

Not everyone was brave, heroic, or helpful and those in charge had no idea of the danger that was looming in the days before the storm and completely failed to take the proper precaustions

Forty years after the North Sea Flood, the waters-noodramp’s narrative has finally shifted from the disaster as an act of God followed by collective heroism to the poor state of the dikes, widespread suffering, human failure, and trauma. The oral histories collected by the authors successfully dispersed a rosy WWII-era depiction of the flood and brought a new understanding of the evenSurvivors’ emotions unearthed by Leydesdorff and Slager also inspired a new generation of writers, filmmakers, and playwrights. Consequently new themes surrounding regret, guilt, and despair emerged in cultural expressions about the disaster.

This dynamic shows how crucial these types of ethnographies are in understanding events—even years later. Dutch society was not able to learn from the waters-noodramp at the time. Societal structure and post-war concerns prevented the Dutch from truly processing the devastating disaster. But thanks to the preservation of these firsthand accounts, real lessons were still able to emerge.


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