The emotional and critical Historian: Jacques Presser's Life and Legacy
Who Was Jacques Presser?
Jacques Presser (1899-1970) was born in Amsterdam to a poor Jewish family and named Jacob. His father, Gerrit Presser (1874-1936), worked in the diamond trade, and his mother, Aaltje Stempel (1977-1948), looked after Jacob and his three younger sisters. In 1903 the Pressers moved to Antwerp for Gerrit to find work, returning to Amsterdam in 1907, where Jacques remained for the rest of his life.
The director of the local Twentse Bank,].]. Th. Blijdenstein, whose son Presser helped at secondary school, gave him some financial support and that, together with a scholarship, enabled Presser to obtain his PhD in history from the University of Amsterdam in 1926. He then found a position as a history teacher at the Vossius Gymnasium in the city and, in the 1930s, began to write scholarly articles. Politically, Presser was, as Nicolette Mout put it, "a convinced but thoroughly undogmatic Marxist".
His article, 'Mti-Semitism as an Historical Phenomenon" was published just before the Germans invaded the Netherlands. He also finished a monograph about Napoleon and, a year later, in 1941, he completed the manuscript of a book about the Dutch Revolt against the Spanish Habsburg Empire and this was published as The Eighty Year war under the name of a non-Jewish friend, B. W Schaper.
All Jewish teachers were dismissed at the end of November 1940 and Presser was very proud of the fact that some of the students at Vosser Gymnasium, among them Lucas van der Land and Salvador Bloemgarten, immediately organized a strike. After the Germans occupied the Netherlands in May 1940, Presser and his wife De (Debora) Appel, one of his former students, had, like many Jews in Amsterdam, tried to flee to England by boat. That failed and, desperately worried about the future, they both attempted suicide but they were found alive just in time.
When, in the summer of 1941, the Nazis ordered that the Dutch school system be segregated, Presser found a job in the Jewish Lyceum in Amsterdam and he combined teaching with writing. He was a very popular teacher who impressed his students with his poetic and emotional presentation.
When the deportation of Jews from Amsterdam began in July 1942, Jacques and De put off going into hiding again and again. They took a family of four into their flat and fostered Isa Baschwitz, the child of a mixed marriage.
By March 1943, Jews were no longer allowed to travel and De was arrested when attempting to visit her mother who was in hiding. She was taken to Westerbok transit camp and from there to Sobibor, where the Dutch Jews were sent straight to the gas chambers.
Jacques did not discover what happened to her until 1948 and, worried and uncertain, he went into hiding in May 1943. He lived at four different addresses in the province of Gelderland until the liberation in May 1945.
During this time, he wrote a history of America (America: From Colony to World Power, which wasn't published until 1949), a novel in the form of a diary, and many letters. This was only possible because of the help of P.A.L. Oppenheimer, the librarian at the University of Amsterdam, and Isa Baschwitz, who was still able to travel and so could carry books and letters between Amsterdam and Presser's hiding place. Presser's friends, J. de Rek and K. Plomb were also crucial to his survival as he hid in the villages of Lunteren, Wageningen and Barneveld.
In his wartime diary, Homo submersus ("Man in Hiding"), Presser describes the tensions between the Jews he met and the non-Jews who helped them but who would sometimes take advantage of their dependence. He writes about sexual affairs, clashes between urban and rural lifestyles, differences in class and cultural backgrounds, kindness, betrayal and the oppressive nature of remaining in hiding for day after day, unable to step outside, not knowing when it would all end.
He returned to Amsterdam after the liberation and set about finding out how many family members and friends had been killed. He chose not to return to his old apartment but moved in with his good friends, the historians Jan and Annie Romein and their children. Later, he rented rooms from Bep Hartog who took good care of him. In 1954, after she had been widowed, he married her. He went back to Vossius Gymnasium, but in 1947 became a lecturer at the new progressive social faculty at the University of Amsterdam. He was offered a chair there later but the appointment encountered serious opposition from the national government because of his left-wing views. However, he was appointed a full professor in 1952 and remained at the university until his retirement in 1969. He died in 1970.
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Tekst of the book promotion by Souvenir Press:
ASHES IN THE WIND.
The Destruction of Dutch Jewry
by Jacob Presser
In time for the International Holocaust Day 2010 we are publishing the first paperback edition of the classic book by Jacob Presser. We originally published it in 1968 both in the UK and USA, and are convinced that it remains one of the most important works in this subject area and is as topical today as it was originally.
This new edition with an afterword by Dienke Hondius of VU University Amsterdam and the Anne Frank House, is being sent to you compliments of Stichting Grensgebied who have generously supported the reissue of this major work.
Should you wish to purchase further copies at any time they are available from all major booksellers, from such online suppliers as Amazon and BookDepository amongst others or directly from us, Souvenir Press at 43 Great Russell St, London, WC1B 3PD, England, firstname.lastname@example.org
We are independent book publishers of 58 years standing and in allied areas are the publishers of Rabbi Heschel's GOD IN SEARCH OF MAN, Herman Wouk's THIS IS MY GOD, Aaron Lansky's OUTWITTING HISTORY and Naim Kattan's FAREWELL BABYLON and the extraordinary ADDRESS UNKNOWN which may be familiar to you.
Souvenir Press Ltd, Managing Director
Souvenir Press Ltd, 43 Great Russell Street, London WCIB 3PD
Fax: 020 7580 5064
Souvenir Press Ltd
43 Great Russell Street
London WC1B 3PD - Great Britain
Tel: 020 7580 9307
Fax: 020 7580 5064
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Jewish Chronicle. London, January 7, 2010
By Ben Barkow
Created 7 Jan 2010 - 11:41am
Book reviews Second World War
By Jacob Presser
Souvenir Press, £15
Ashes in the Wind is Dr Jacob Presser's classic account of the Holocaust in the Netherlands. First published in 1965, it is a product of what one might term the heroic generation of Holocaust writings, predating the tidal wave of scholarship and memoirs that began in the 1970s and which today shows little sign of receding. Its republication, in Arnold Pomerans's translation, is to be welcomed.
Presser was a Dutch Jew who survived in hiding in the Netherlands after failing to escape to Britain and a failed suicide attempt. After the war, he spent 15 years researching the book, combing through the vast archive of the Dutch National Institute for War Documentation. It was an immediate best-seller in the Netherlands when it was published. This translation first appeared in 1968.
In Presser's analysis, the destruction of the Dutch Jews fell into three phases: the early measures to isolate the community; their forced removal from the provinces and concentration in Amsterdam; and the deportations to the death camps in Poland.
His unflinching account of the indifference and passivity of most Dutch people challenged the complacent self-image the Dutch had of themselves as resisters of the Nazis. His work prompted much soul-searching, and inspired a younger generation of scholars to drill down deeply into the nation's wartime history.
Yet he was also criticized, particularly for having written from the perspective of the victims and for including such emotive material. Today, such criticism appears strange, when a book such as Saul Friedlander's The Years of Extermination is hailed a masterpiece precisely for the inclusion of such material.
Ashes in the Wind must be understood, however, as a document of its time. Not all of its judgments appear sound today. Presser's condemnation of the Jewish Council, for example, for doing the Nazis' work for them seems now to be harsh.
Recent scholarship is more nuanced and acknowledges that Jewish councils frequently faced what the Israeli historian Yehuda Bauer has termed "choiceless choices".
Though not a Holocaust memoir, the book owes much to Presser's own story. His wife Deborah was deported and murdered in Sobibor. He managed to stay hidden for two years, during which he researched and wrote a history of America, among other works. He was able to do this because non
Jewish colleagues and friends sheltered him and brought him books, letters and research materials.
Presser saw the best and the worst of the Dutch response to Nazi occupation. To an impressive extent he carried this balanced view into his remarkable book.
• Source URL:http://www.thejc.com/print/25805
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