Ash­es in the Wind: The Destruc­tion of Dutch Jewry

Dr. Jacob Presser
  • Review
By – September 1, 2011
Ash­es in the Wind is Dr. Jacob Presser’s clas­sic account of the Holo­caust in the Nether­lands. First pub­lished in 1965, the book has not been avail­able for many years and is now re-issued in a new paper­back ver­sion with a spe­cial after­ward by his­to­ri­an Dienke Hon­drus of Ams­ter­dam Uni­ver­si­ty and staff mem­ber of the Anne Frank House, Ams­ter­dam.

Presser’s book is rec­og­nized as one of the ear­ly works on the Shoah, pre­dat­ing the pletho­ra of books that began to appear in the 1970’s. It chron­i­cles the trag­ic sto­ry of the 140,000 Jews who lived in the Nether­lands in 1940. Over 110,000 were deport­ed to con­cen­tra­tion camps and of those under 6,000 sur­vived. Presser’s life mir­rored that his­to­ry. He was a Dutch Jew who sur­vived in hid­ing for two years in the Nether­lands; his wife, Deb­o­rah, was deport­ed and killed in Sobi­bor. After the war he spent over a decade research­ing the book using the vast archival hold­ings in the Dutch Nation­al Insti­tute for War Doc­u­men­ta­tion. The book was a great com­mer­cial suc­cess, notwith­stand­ing its harsh crit­i­cism of the Dutch peo­ple. He recount­ed the indif­fer­ence and silent con­for­mi­ty of the Dutch peo­ple, chal­leng­ing the image they had of them­selves as resisters of the Nazis and coura­geous friends to the belea­guered Jews. He prompt­ed much intro­spec­tion and future research.

When first pub­lished, the book was crit­i­cized in some cir­cles for being too emo­tive, for writ­ing his­to­ry from the per­spec­tive of the vic­tim and for being too harsh. The book, how­ev­er, has weath­ered the test of time. Much of its evi­dence and asser­tions remain cred­i­ble and impor­tant, even as more recent schol­ar­ship has sug­gest­ed nuanced inter­pre­ta­tions of such issues as the role of the Jew­ish coun­cils, for exam­ple. It was a mon­u­men­tal achieve­ment in 1965 and it remains so today, re-open­ing a win­dow into the process of dehu­man­iza­tion, pas­siv­i­ty, and com­plic­i­ty that allowed the Holo­caust to happen.
Michael N. Dobkows­ki is a pro­fes­sor of reli­gious stud­ies at Hobart and William Smith Col­leges. He is co-edi­tor of Geno­cide and the Mod­ern Age and On the Edge of Scarci­ty (Syra­cuse Uni­ver­si­ty Press); author of The Tar­nished Dream: The Basis of Amer­i­can Anti-Semi­tism; and co-author of The Nuclear Predicament.

Discussion Questions