The love that sur­vived Ber­gen-Belsen

The Jewish Chronicle - - NEWS - BYTOMTUGEND NEW YORK

“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

PHOTO: MARK SELIGER

The cou­ple to­day: mar­ried for 62 years, they tell their story in a new doc­u­men­tary film re­leased next week

Ina and Jack’s wed­ding

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