Exchanging love letters in Westerbork and Bergen-Belsen

Exchanging love letters in Westerbork and Bergen-Belsen

A new opera, ‘Steal a Pencil for Me,’ sets to music an unexpected Holocaust love story

Ina and Jack Polak (photo credit: Mark Seliger)
Ina and Jack Polak (photo credit: Mark Seliger)

Jack and Ina Polak’s romance took root in the most unlikely of places: the Westerbork transit camp in Holland, during World War II. Jack and Ina had met previously, as both were members of the intimate Jewish community of Amsterdam, but Jack’s first marriage had interfered. In the camp, everything changed.

“Our romance was not unique. We have a few other friends where similar things took place, where two people met in the camps, and one was married. It’s not unique, but not that unusual either,” said Ina Soep Polak in an interview with The Times of Israel. At the time, Jack was in an unhappy marriage, and he and his wife Manja were planning to divorce after the war.

Instead, Jack and Manja were deported to Westerbork in the Netherlands in July 1943, and Ina arrived in September. The three all lived in the same barracks.

In the harsh camp conditions in Westerbork, Jack and Ina’s budding romance provided an escape. At night, they took walks along the main road in the camp, the “Boulevard de Misere,” and in between the barracks.

“It was pitch dark, a lot of people walked there too, but we never saw who. We talked about the mundane things of the camp, and later on we talked about the future,” said Ina.

‘I’m writing with a pencil stub. Darling, try to steal a pencil for me somewhere’

When it was difficult to meet, they started exchanging letters. “I’m writing with a pencil stub. Darling, try to steal a pencil for me somewhere,” wrote Jack in one of his letters.

The letters, which were published in the 2000 book “Steal a Pencil for Me,” chronicle Jack and Ina’s romance as well as life in Westerbork and Bergen-Belsen. Their story was turned into an award-winning 2007 documentary of the same name by Academy Award nominee Michèle Ohayon.

A 1940 portrait of Ina Soep Polak. (photo credit: courtesy)
A 1940 portrait of Ina Soep Polak. (photo credit: courtesy)

April 28 will mark the debut of “Steal a Pencil for Me” the opera. Composed by Gerald Cohen with a libretto by Deborah Brevoorst, the work will have two April performances, first at Congregation Shaarei Tikvah in Scarsdale, NY, where Cohen is cantor, and on April 30 at the Jewish Theological Seminary. The Polaks plan to attend both performances.

The couple did not remain at Westerbork for long: Jack was deported to Germany to Bergen-Belsen in February 1944, where Ina joined him in May 1944.

Later, as the war drew to a close, Jack and Ina were sent on different trains away from the camp. Ina was liberated by the US Army on April 13, 1945 and Jack by the Russian Army on April 23, 1945. They were reunited on June 23, 1945.

Jack and Ina Polak's 1946 wedding portrait. (photo credit: courtesy)
Jack and Ina Polak’s 1946 wedding portrait. (photo credit: courtesy)

Jack divorced his first wife, Manja, who remained in Holland, later moved into a nursing home and has now passed away. She did not remarry.

Jack and Ina were married on January 29, 1946, in Amsterdam.

Returning to Holland after the war was galling for the couple. Ina recalls finding a war-torn country, where the people had greatly suffered and were not receptive to hearing about the agony in the camps.

“People had died in the streets from starvation and cold. We came back to a devastated country where the people also had gone through terrible experiences, so they were not always that open to listen to our stories, and we did not feel that compelled to tell them,” she said.

Ina remembers feeling at home in Holland as she grew up. “In Holland we were all Dutch. We were not Dutch Jews, we were Jewish Dutchmen. There was some discrimination but I never realized it, and most of my friends were Gentiles,” said Ina. However, after the war, the environment changed. “Hitler succeeded in one way, by making everybody in Europe feel that there is a difference between Jews and non-Jews,” she said.

‘Hitler succeeded in one way, by making everybody in Europe feel that there is a difference between Jews and non-Jews’

Since 1951 the Polaks have been living in the US, where they have three children, five grandchildren and six great-grandchildren. “We came on a boat and the moment I set foot on American soil I felt that I would like it here. I loved it from day one, and I was never homesick for Holland,” said Ina.

Jack and Ina have worked tirelessly to raise awareness about the Holocaust, and Jack is chairman emeritus of the Anne Frank Center USA, which was founded by Otto Frank to educate people about the Holocaust, racism and discrimination. Jack has won numerous awards for his work and was knighted by Queen Beatrix of the Netherlands on his 80th birthday.

Jack feels that as a Holocaust survivor, he has a duty to educate people about what he went through. “Every Holocaust survivor has the task to tell as much as possible to everybody because that’s the only way that the Holocaust will be remembered. You can compare it to the Passover Seder, the way we celebrate going out of Egypt, the same way we have to commemorate the Holocaust,” said Jack.

In January, Jack and Ina Polak celebrated their 100th and 90th birthdays respectively at their home synagogue, Shaarei Tikvah. As he does every year, Jack read his bar mitzvah Torah and Haftorah portions.

After Jack and Ina’s story had been turned into a book and a documentary, composer Gerald Cohen, who has known the Polaks for 25 years, was excited at the idea of composing an opera about them.

“I’ve been wanting to do an opera about the Shoah for quite a while, and I thought, here I have a subject right at home that’s an amazing story,” said Cohen. When he first suggested the idea three years ago, Jack and Ina were both surprised.

“At that point Jack said, ‘Write it quickly, I’m 97, I want to see this thing,’” said Cohen.

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