On the 1st September 1939 the German Army invaded Poland, and the Second World War began. In the spring of 1940, after successfully concluding his campaign in Eastern Europe with the occupation of Poland, Hitler started his offensive in the West. In April he occupied Denmark and Norway, and on 10 May the German armies attacked Holland, Belgium and France at the same time.
It was a rude awakening for a country that had not been involved in a European war since the days of Napoleon and believed implicitly in its policy of neutrality and impartiality. During the First World War it had proved a very advantageous policy as well. This time it was not to be. Queen Wilhelmina and her government fled to London, and on 15 May the Dutch army capitulated. Five long years of occupation by Nazi Germany followed. Those five years have left deep wounds in the lives of many Dutch people. Almost 100,000 fatalities among soldiers, underground resistance fighters and civilians, the hardships of the Japanese prisoner-of- war camps, the forced employment of many men in Germany and the 'hungerwinter' of 1944-1945 are all etched into the collective memory of many Dutch men and women.
But all the hardships suffered in Holland pale in comparison with the fate of the Dutch Jews. In 1965 the Jewish historian Jacques Presser published his extensive study about the persecution of Dutch Jewry, Ondergang (translated into English as Ashes in the Wind; American title: The Destruction of the Dutch Jews). He began his introduction with these telling sentences:
This book tells the history of murder -- of murder on a scale never known before, with malice aforethought and in cold blood. The murderers were Germans, their victims Jews... ( Presser, 1969:1)
Unrelated to any wartime or military imperative, the German occupier took the first measures against the Jews of Holland as early as 1940. Step by step they were first identified, isolated and then deported. During 1942 and 1943 virtually all Jews who had been unable to get away or to go into hiding were transported to the concentration camps and the gas chambers in Eastern Europe. More than 100,000 of them never returned.