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Sharon Chisvin, October 5, 2010

Last year the Winnipeg Jewish Review published an article about a B’nai Brith Manitoba sponsored event honouring Anje Van Tongeren, an elderly Dutch woman living in Winnipeg. Van Tongeren and her mother had been members of the Dutch Underground during World War II and had helped save the lives of dozens of Jews. At the time of the event, Van Tongeren was being considered for the designation of ‘Righteous Gentile.’

That article caught the eye of London, England-based publishing House, Souvenir Press, which had recently released a soft cover edition of Ashes in the Wind: the Destruction of Dutch Jewry, Dr. Jacob Presser’s definitive history of Dutch Jewry under the Nazi occupation.

A university history professor, Dr. Presser was commissioned to write the book by the Netherlands State Institute for War Documentation in 1950. It took him 15 years to complete. Published in 1965 in Holland, and translated into English by Souvenir Press three years later, it became an instant bestseller.

At 535 pages, plus an introduction, an epilogue and an afterword, this magnum opus is a fascinating read. Painstaking in its detail, extraordinary for its thoroughness, and haunting in its photo selection, it chronicles the fate of the Jews of the Netherlands under the Nazi occupation that began in May, 1940.

While researching and writing this book, Presser also penned the novel, The Night of the Girondins, about a Jewish prisoner in the Westerbork transit camp.

In Ashes in the Wind, Presser seems to have left no stone unturned. Relying on interviews, official documentation, memoirs, personal letters and diaries, he discusses  every meeting, every order, every compromise, every betrayal and every action in great detail. He also scrupulously considers  the various personalities, German, Dutch and Jewish, that played a role in determining what would become of the Jews of Holland. The malevolence of the Nazi war machine and the best intentions of the local Jewish Council and the Dutch Underground are carefully examined, as is the passivity, and, too often, collaboration, of the non Jewish Dutch citizenry.

Beginning in the summer of 1942, 110,000 Dutch Jews were transferred to the Westerbork transit camp in northeastern Holland. From there, every week for months, they were deported en masse to Auschwitz-Birkenau, Sobibor, Bergen-Belsen and Theresienstadt. Most of those who arrived at Auschwitz and Sobibor were immediately killed. At the end of the war, fewer than 6,000 Jews returned to Holland from these camps.

Jacob Presser survived the war in hiding. His wife, Debora Appel, died in Sobibor.  At the beginning of the occupation both had tried to flee to England, and failing that had both attempted suicide.

The writing of this extraordinary book was clearly a labour born out of grief, love and necessity. As Presser wrote in his original introduction, his intention was  “To speak up for all those thousands now doomed to eternal silence, whose last cries of despair went unheard, and whose ashes no one was allowed to gather up.”

“The treatment of Dutch Jews,” he added, “may have differed in tempo from that meted out to their Eastern European brethren, but the aim was everywhere the same: “the final solution” of the Jewish problem, the destruction of all “Jewish parasites.”

 Ashes in the Wind is being distributed in Canada by IPG Books, .


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