November 8, 2007
Films: Romantic triangle survives in the midst of hell
"I'm a very special Holocaust survivor," Jack Polak says. "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 films with humor, 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 documentary feature, "Steal a Pencil for Me."
Another shorthand way of summarizing 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 intensive romantic correspondence.
The three survive, Jack divorces Manja, marries Ina and they move to the United States.
The story doesn't end there. We caught up by phone with Jack, who will be 95 on Dec. 31, and Ina, 80, 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 odd experiences with gusto, though, as with most old 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. While many Jews were deported and, like Jack's parents, subsequently murdered, the young accountant manages to keep going, though locked into an incompatible marriage.
At a birthday party in 1943, he meets Ina, a 20-year-old beauty raised in a wealthy diamond manufacturing family, and it's love at first sight.
The looming love affair appears aborted when a couple of weeks after Jack meets Ina, he and his wife are deported to the Dutch transit camp of Westerbork.
As fate would have it, two months later Ina is deported to the same place, where the rules allow Jack to spend some time with both wife and girlfriend until the 8 p.m. curfew.
Soon the trains started rolling from Westerbork to the concentration camps, and in February 1944, Jack and Manja are sent to Bergen-Belsen. Jack says goodbye to Ina, with the words, "I hope you will soon follow me."
Three months later, it's Ina's turn and she is put in a boxcar headed for Auschwitz. At the last minute, orders are changed, and the train is routed to Bergen-Belsen in northwest Germany.
Though the regime there is much stricter and more brutal than in Westerbork, Jack and Ina manage to see each other occasionally, and, under the circumstances, they are fortunate in other ways.
Jack is assigned to work in the camp kitchen, and Ina, who knows German shorthand, to office work at a diamond plant set up by the Nazis.
At every opportunity, the two write long impassioned letters to each other, to the point that Jack's one pencil stub is soon worn down to the nub. Since Ina works in an office, Jack begs her in one letter, "steal a pencil for me."
Manja becomes increasingly suspicious and annoyed with Jack's liaison, but is generous enough to share some of her scarce bread with Ina when her rival falls 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 lovers' luck seemed to run out. 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 she remembers marveling at the great teeth of the GIs, wondering "whether they all went to the same dentist."
Russian soldiers freed Jack's train a week later, and 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," Jack said .
They moved to the United States in 1951, and have three children, five grandchildren and two great-grandchildren.
The family maintained friendly relations with Manja, who never remarried and died two years ago in Holland.
A fellow prisoner in Bergen-Belsen was Anne Frank, and although the Polaks never met her, Jack headed the American support group for the Anne Frank Center for many decades. He was knighted for his services by the Dutch government.
Eventually, the Polaks decided to write down their experiences, and their book, "Steal a Pencil for Me," was published in the United States 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 honored her request.
"I never thought our story would be made into a movie," said Ina, but life had yet another surprise in store for the Polaks.
Their daughter, Margrit Polak, had become an artists' manager in Los Angeles, and an active member of Temple Israel of Hollywood. Her daughter attended the synagogue's day school and was in the same class as the daughter of filmmaker Michele Ohayon.
Born in Casablanca and raised in Israel, Ohayon is a noted director of offbeat documentaries, whose 1997 film, "Colors Straight Up," received an Oscar nomination.
Margrit, who had helped translate her parents' book into English, mentioned their story to Ohayon. Although she was working on another project, Ohayon put everything aside for the next five years to research and film "Steal a Pencil for Me."
In directing the film, Ohayon lets her two lively and expressive narrators, Jack and Ina, carry the action, while never stooping to sly winks or cheap humor. Historical footage of the concentration camps and 1940s Holland complement the narration.
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," said Ina. Added Jack, "I like it better each time I see it."
The film opens Nov. 9 at Laemmle's Music Hall in Beverly Hills and the Town Center in Encino. For additional background information, visit http://www.stealapencil.com.