Miracle: The Girl from Rotterdam | HistoryNet

Miracle: The Girl from Rotterdam

By Robert M. Citino
12/22/2011 • Fire for Effect

As readers of this column know by now, war movies don’t do much for me. It’s a case of too much movie and not enough war. Too much Hollywood, not enough Hürtgen. Everything in real war is confused, bewildering, and ambiguous. Everything in movie-war is certain. I have a feeling that Clausewitz wouldn’t be much of a war movie buff, either, and after I die, I intend to ask him.

There is one kind of movie I can’t get enough of, however: films made during World War II. Or immediately before. Or immediately after. However much they try to deal in fantasy, they can’t help but tell the truth. They are my window into a world that I cannot know. Born in 1958, I can try to understand what it felt like to live in 1938 or 1948, but I usually fail. My introduction to World War II as a boy? The television series Combat, with my boyhood hero, the late Vic Morrow. A few years later, I watched Rat Patrol, and it, too, blew my mind. In neither case, however, do I confuse them with real life, or history, or an objective account of “how it really was.” I’ve grown. I’ve put away the things of a child, as St. Paul once wrote.

The other day, however, I was watching a movie made in 1947, in the very wake of World War II. Its audience had just lived through a war that had killed wholesale—60 million dead by the most recent Wikipedia count, some 2.5% of the world’s 1939 population. In many places like China and the Soviet Union, the percentage was much, much higher. This was a movie made in the very wake of holocaust, in other words, not to mention the Holocaust.

Oddly enough, it’s a happy film. Uplifting. A “feelgood,” as wags in Hollywood like to call it today. It’s that holiday perennial Miracle on 34th Street. You all know it: A nice old man with a beard who calls himself Kris Kringle, who thinks he’s Santa Claus, and who, by the end of the film, manages to convince the U.S. Postal service that he is, in fact, who he says he is. Maureen O’Hara at her most beautiful. An adorable Natalie Wood at the age of 8.

There is a scene in the middle of the film where Kris, dressed up as Santa at Macy’s, greets a shy little girl. Her mother—actually, we learn, her adoptive mother—tries to explain to him that the girl knows no English, that she is a Dutch refugee, an orphan from Rotterdam recently brought to the United States and placed in a foster home.

You all know what happens next. Kris—miraculously, it seems—begins speaking to her in Dutch. Her little eyes widen in amazement and she speaks back. “Sinterklaas,” she squeals with delight! It’s the first sign to us, the audience, that there is something special about this old man. Maybe he really is Santa Claus! I watched it last night, and I’d like to say that my wife cried like a baby during this scene, but she wasn’t the only one grabbing the kleenex.

It’s Hollywood at its classic best. But like I said, I’m not a kid any more, and as I sat there, I started thinking about World War II. About Rotterdam and that Luftwaffe terror raid. It was infamous at the time, a clear sign of Nazi frightfulness. Today, there are historians who describe it more as a result of bad timing: the Dutch had already offered their surrender, it was still working its way through diplomatic channels, and no one bothered to inform the Luftwaffe, which had already drawn up its plans for a raid into the city center.

But here’s something else I thought about. Today, the Netherlands is one of the richest countries in the world. Dutch cities are renowned for their beauty, their architecture, and their hedonistic delights. Back in 1947, however, you could be making a movie that included a crucial scene centering on a refugee child, and it would be the most natu-ral thing in the world to say, “Get me a Dutch girl.”

We live in a world where “refugees” are from faraway lands that Americans don’t think much about. Congo or Yemen or Libya or Haiti or a dozen other places. The Third World, we call it. Lands of tyranny and privation and want. Lands where unfortunate people starve to death, or have to dance to the whims of the local dictator and risk death if they refuse.

This is what I thought about the other night while watching Miracle on 34th Street. You want to talk about the “Third World”? In World War II, that meant the Netherlands. A prosperous First World country descending into hell. Terror-bombed by the Luftwaffe. Overrun by the Wehrmacht. Ruled by a Nazi madman named Artur Seyss-Inquart, and by the end of the war, starved to death during what the Dutch still call the “Hongerwinter” of 1944–45.

Sometimes I wish I could just watch a movie like other people.

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9 Responses to Miracle: The Girl from Rotterdam

  1. Bruce says:

    “Sometimes I wish I could just watch a movie like other people.” Nah. That’s something special, to have a thought like that about “The Girl from Rotterdam.”

  2. Luke Truxal says:

    Sometimes I think the Rotterdam raid gets forgotten. First, compared to the Blitz and the Combined Bomber Offensive it was not nearly as destructive. That is not to say that Rotterdam’s losses were not insignificant. They were, but it was not as infamous as the raids we do remember: Hiroshima, Nagasaki, London, and basically all of Germany.

    I am glad you wrote this, because I never thought to think of Rotterdam. Did you notice how the movie described the girl? She was an orphan. In an indirect way this movie shows the destructive nature of the war that was unleashed upon the world in 1939. A new kind of warfare, where major cities could be erased in a matter of days or, by the end of the war, minutes. Not only was this possible, it was accepted and promoted on all sides. For all we know her parents could have been killed by the Nazis, Allied bombers, or killed in a cross fire between the two sides. Does it matter though who killed her parents? In the end they are still gone.

    Not to put a damper on the whole World War II experience, because I do think the right side won and that the war was necessary to stop Germany, Italy, and Japan. However, the cost is what disturbs me.

  3. Rob Citino says:

    Thanks, Bruce… appreciate the kind word. And Luke, good point(s). I’m with you on this. You can be a hard-boiled analyst of the air war, but still pause from time to time to contemplate the cost. –RC

    • Mike H. says:

      Rob, the cost was unimaginably high…and worth it in every way. I would hate to see the world today if our side had failed back then.

  4. Jason Qualey says:

    Thanks for sharing this thought. That’s a very touching scene, but I didn’t realize that Dutch refugees came to this country. I too love films from this time period and you miss a lot of references because we are so far removed from what people were living through in those days. I have older relatives that remember German POW’s working on potatoe farms where I grew up. Keep those thoughts coming! Merry Christmas.

  5. Len East says:

    I watched the original for the first time over Christmas (before I read this blog entry) and the significance of the “Dutch” orphan to the time period was completely lost on me. Those are very insightful thoughts drawn from what most people often overlook. Loved the movie also.

  6. SiSi says:

    I’m from Rotterdam myself and came across this blog by accident. I appreciate you sparing a thought for the tragic history of our city. My grandmother is als a “girl from Rotterdam” and lost her younger brother in the air raid. The city stilll bears the scars. Instead of rebuilding the almost completely destroyed historical city centre, the people chose to work hard and build a new and modern city (and for more than 40 years the biggest harbor in the world!), so thoughts like yours regularly cross my mind.

    Holiday greetings from another girl from Rotterdam and a happy new year!

  7. Rob Citino says:

    Thanks, Jason and Len. And SiSi, my best to your family, and to your city!

    Happy New Year to all.

    –Rob C

  8. Major Sennef says:

    Every while you come across little gems, only this time it is two:
    the original movie scene from 1947 (surprisingly hard to find on You Tube)
    and this blog that made me realize that in the time of my grandparents the Dutch could be considered refugees.

    Rotterdam is rebuilt and the Dutch are rich now, accepting refugees themselves; but it is good to be reminded that only two generations ago the Dutch were in the same position as the Somali, Syrian and Afghan refugees are in now.

    Remarkable good Dutch by both Kris and the girl by the way.

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