Have you ever wondered why Nijmegen’s ugliest square is called Plein ’44? And have you ever wondered why it was such an ugly and soulless place, before they started to dig it up to build more shops?
The answer is that Nijmegen was bombed on 22 February 1944 and a major part of the centre was destroyed. According to recent research, between 674 and 688 people died in the attack, but this number does not include those who died later of their wounds, nor anybody who may have been in hiding at the time. The actual number was nearer 800. More than 10% of Nijmegen’s 22,000 houses were destroyed during the war, 650 of them on 22 February and another 1,400 during Operation Market Garden and Operation Veritable in September and October 1944.
Strangely, the bombing of Nijmegen was largely forgotten after the war, even though just as many people died as in the more famous bombing of Rotterdam, recently commemorated in the film Bombardement and the internationally successful Paul Verhoeven film Zwartboek (Black Book). During the war, German propaganda posters like the one above claimed that allied forces had bombed the towns Nijmegen, Enschede and Arnhem, but this was strongly denied by the allies. Only very recently has it been admitted that American planes almost certainly bombed Nijmegen, presumably mistaking the city for a German town.
A few days afterwards on 26 February 1944, a public memorial service was held in the theatre De Vereeniging, followed by a procession taking an ‘unknown victim’ in a horse-drawn carriage to the graveyard on the Graafseweg. Tens of thousands of people lined the route to pay their respects. Several hundred victims of the bombing were buried there in mass graves, but were moved to a so-called field of honour (erehof) in the Vredehof graveyard on the Weg door Jonkerbos when it opened in 1963. Others were re-interred elsewhere at the request of their families.
Memorials to the victims of the bombing
A commemoration of the bombing is held each year on 22 February at the memorial in the centre of town. The memorial takes the form of a swing and stands on the site of a primary school run by nuns that was destroyed, killing 24 children and 8 nuns. You can find it in a small square on the upper level of the Marikenstraat; you’ve probably walked past it many times without noticing. Another memorial to the victims was unveiled in 2006 at the site of the original mass graves. I happened upon it last year when I decided to walk through the cemetery on the Graafseweg. I had cycled past it hundreds of times without realising it was there; in spite of being an impressive and beautiful monument, it is hidden at the back, invisible from both the main Graafseweg and the cycle route that passes it.
Exhibition at the Valkhof Museum
On Thursday I managed to catch the exhibition at the Valkhof Museum putting Nijmegen’s war experience into a wider context. Unfortunately the exhibition finishes today (Sunday 22 February) and was only in Dutch and German. I discovered many interesting facts about Nijmegen in wartime that I hadn’t known about before or hadn’t seen in the wider context. I will write about them in another blog post. My daughter visited it a few weeks ago, together with a guided tour around the town itself and she came back really enthusiastic. On the last day of the exhibition, survivors of the bombing will be at the museum to talk about their experiences. I wish I could be there. If you’d like to visit some of the memorials yourself, they are mapped, described and photographed at tracesofwar.com (in English and Dutch).