The love that survived Bergen-Belsen
“I’M A very special Holocaust survivor,” says Jack Polak. “I was in the camps with my wife and my girlfriend; and believe me, it wasn’t easy.”
This may sound like a line from the new genre of Holocaust movies with humour, but Polak — who is “Jacob” on his birth certificate, “Jack” in America, “Jaap” to his Dutch friends, and “Jab” to his wife — is just stating the facts in the new American documentary feature film Steal a Pencil for Me.
Another way of summarising the storyline: Jack, an accountant in Amsterdam in the early 1940s, is married to Manja, but falls in love with Ina. All three are deported to Bergen-Belsen, where Jack and Ina carry on an intense romantic correspondence. The three survive, Jack divorces Manja and marries Ina, and they move to the US.
Jack will be 95 on December 31, and Ina, 80, spoke to the JC at their home in Eastchester, a New York suburb, shortly after they celebrated their 62nd wedding anniversary.
Not slowed down by some hearing problems, Jack recalled his experiences with gusto, though, as with most long-married couples, Ina had to correct him occasionally on a few historic points.
Fame has come late to the Polaks, but both obviously enjoy starring in their own life story. “I’m the oldest working actor in America,” Jack remarks proudly.
Their story, and the film, begins during the Nazi occupation of Holland in 1940. Whereas many Jews were deported and, like Jack’s parents, subsequently murdered, the young accountant managed to keep going, though locked into an incompatible marriage.
At a birthday party in 1943, he met Ina, a 20-year-old beauty raised in a wealthy diamond-manufacturing family. It was love at first sight.
The looming love affair appeared aborted when a couple of weeks after Jack met Ina, he and his wife were deported to the Dutch transit camp of Westerbork.
As fate would have it, two months later Ina was deported to the same place, where Jack managed to spend some time with both wife and girlfriend until the 8pm curfew.
Soon the trains started rolling from Westerbork to the concentration camps, and in February 1944 Jack and Manja were sent to Bergen-Belsen. Jack said goodbye to Ina, with the words, “I hope you will soon follow me.”
Three months later, it was Ina’s turn. She was thrown into a boxcar headed for Auschwitz, but at the last minute orders were changed and the train was routed to Bergen-Belsen, in North-West Germany.
Although the regime there was much stricter and more brutal than in Westerbork, Jack and Ina managed to meet occasionally.
Jack was assigned to work in the camp kitchen and Ina, who knew German shorthand, to office work at a diamond plant set up by the Nazis. At every opportunity the two wrote long, impassioned letters to each other, to the point that Jack’s one pencil stub was soon worn down to the nub.
Since Ina worked in an office, Jack begged her in one letter: “Steal a pencil for me.”
Manja became increasingly suspicious and annoyed with Jack’s liaison but, remarkably, was generous enough to share some of her scarce bread with Ina when her rival fell ill.
Most concentration-camp recollections speak of unbearable filth, degradation, and foremost the constant hunger that obliterated all other thoughts.
But for Jack and Ina, their love was even stronger. “It was this love that kept us alive,” they say.
As the British army neared the camp in early April 1945, the Nazis put Jack on a train going east, and Ina on a train going in the opposite direction.
Ina’s train was liberated within a week by American troops, and Russian soldiers freed Jack’s train a week later. By summer, husband, wife and girlfriend were back in Amsterdam.
In August 1945, Jack divorced Manja. He and Ina became engaged two months later, and married in January 1946. “Like any good Dutch Jewish girl, Ina came to her wedding night as a virgin,” said Jack.
They moved to the US in 1951, and have three children, five grandchildren and two great-grandchildren.
The family maintained friendly rela- tions with Manja, who never remarried and died two years ago in Holland.
Eventually, the Polaks decided to write down their experiences and Steal a Pencil for Me was published in the US in 2000.
Manja had asked that the original Dutch version of the book not be published in Holland in her lifetime, and Jack and Ina honoured her request.
“I never thought our story would be made into a movie,” says Ina. But when filmmaker Michele Ohayon heard the story, she put everything aside for the next five years to shoot the film. Ms Ohayon, a Casablanca-born, Israeli director, let her two lively and expressive narrators, Jack and Ina, carry the action, while never stooping to sly winks or cheap humour. Historical footage of the concentration camps and 1940s Holland complement the narration.
A fellow prisoner in Bergen-Belsen was Anne Frank. Although the Polaks never met her, Jack headed the American support group for the Anne Frank Centre for many decades, and was knighted for his services by the Dutch government.
The Polaks are among the film’s most ardent fans. “We have seen the picture six times, and we always have our handkerchiefs ready when we go,” says Ina.
Adds Jack: “I like it better each time I see it.” The film opens on November 9 in New York and Los Angeles, then across the US
The couple today: married for 62 years, they tell their story in a new documentary film released next week
Ina and Jack’s wedding