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Documentary Review - Steal a Pencil for Me - A Story of the Holocaust (2007)

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Background

The couple met first in Amsterdam at a birthday party when Ina Soep was 20 years old and Jack Polak was ten years older.  He was enchanted with her but knew that he might never see her again.  Ina came from a wealthy family who owned a diamond manufacturing company.  They had two maids and a cleaning lady.  She had happy memories.  Jack was from a middle class Jewish family, a mother and father and three children who lived on a second floor with four rooms.  They were poor. 

Introduction

In 1943, Holland was occupied by the Nazis.  The Dutch army had held out for five days, but the whole city was annihilated.  Jack’s sister Betty went into hiding.  She did not let the Nazis know that she was Jewish.  Even Queen Wilhelmina deserted her people and left the country.  You could no longer drive a car; you had to hand in your bicycles and other valuables.  Shopping was only allowed between 4 p.m. and 6 p.m.  No longer could people go to the seashore.  They were happy to be able to celebrate birthdays together.

                                                  

Pencil

                                                                     Pencil - Wikimedia

Their First Meeting

At the party, Ina was introduced to Jack and his wife Manja.  Manja was not beautiful nor was she marriage material.  They seemed to be mismatched.  She would sometimes stop talking to Jack for a week.  They decided that they would probably get divorced after the war. 

Jack was an accountant.  He had appointments to keep so he was given passes to use the streetcar.  He felt as though he was an important man during that period.  His father was an accountant also.  The Germans took them for a long walk to Amsterdam.  They would take ten men at a time and line them up against a wall.  Jack felt that his time had come.  The Germans shot their guns in the air and started laughing.  Then they let the men go. 

The Tragedy of War

Ina remembered that a neighbor of hers tried to commit suicide but was saved from it.  A young couple with a 2-year-old was successful in committing suicide.  Ina’s brother Benno was stoned to death.  Her mother did not like to speak about it.  The loss of Benno was a huge sorrow for Ina’s father; it was the tragedy of his life that he was unable to save Benno.

                                      

Concentration Camp

                                                      Concentration Camp - Wikimedia

Deportation to a Labor Camp

In 1943, the Germans decided to start a plan of deportation.  Jack and Manya were chosen to be sent to a labor camp called Westerbork.  They had to leave their home and all their belongings.  Then the Germans emptied out their house.  Three months later, Ina arrived at the same camp.  She was assigned to the same barracks, #64, that Jack and Manya occupied.  Jack said to her “Remember, we met at that birthday.

Westerbork camp was unique.  There was a sports arena where soccer matches were held.  There was a hospital on the grounds as well as a school for the children.  Because of his academic background, Jack was appointed principal of the school.

Jack and Ina Fall in Love

Jack and Ina would go for walks along the Boulevard de Miseres within the camp until the siren made it known that it was curfew time.  They started to fall in love but they had to keep it secret from Manja.  When Manja found out about it, the letter writing started.  A friend agreed to pass the letters between them.

Ina had a boyfriend named Rudi who was a big part of her teenage years.  It was believed that he had died a long time ago, but Ina said that if he ever came back, she would have to choose between Rudi and Jack, and Rudi would probably win out.  But Rudi never came back.

                                                              

Pencils

                                                                                 Pencils                                                                                                                                                              Wikimedia                                         

Jack’s Father is Killed

There were only 30 guards at Westerbork.  Many older people, in their 80’s and 90’s, had to work very hard.  Jack’s father had to be part of one of those work forces, so Jack gave his father his own sturdier shoes.  He did not realize that his father would be gassed two days later.

Jack wrote to Ina that Manja would probably give them a hard time even though she was not in a happy marriage.  He was a big help to Ina because he was always upbeat and could lift her up when she was down.  His presence and his feelings were a big help to her.  He won her over with his persistence.

Shipment to Bergen-Belsen

In 1944, Jack and Manja were given notice that they would be sent to another camp, called Bergen-Belsen.  He was sad that he would be separated from Ina, and hoped that she might soon follow them.  Three months later, Ina’s name was on the deportation list and she was sent to Bergen-Belsen also.  The odds of that happening were unbelievable.  They were able to write to each other again.

Conditions at the Camp are Deplorable

The sanitation at Bergen-Belsen was indescribable.  They never were able to wash their hair.  They could not keep anything clean.  Their food consisted mainly of turnip soup which sometimes had a piece of horse meat in it.  There were a lot of fights over food.  When people died, others would grab their clothes and pillows.

People from the diamond industry did not work.  Ina was able to take minutes for that group when her father’s friend spoke for her.  She felt that diamonds had saved her life.  Some women were sent to their death in the salt mines.

Jack and Ina’s Friendship Becomes Known

There were 220 people in the barracks.  Jack and Ina had to be careful about meeting.  Manja made sarcastic remarks.  People were making remarks also.  Manja looked like a jilted wife, so she was not nice to Ina.  However, she soon had a doctor for a boyfriend, so she left Jack and Ina alone.  Jack wrote to Ina “I must write with a pencil stub.  Steal a pencil for me.”

Typhus was breaking out in the camp.  Ina had typhus attacks three different times and could not eat her daily rations.  Her sister saved her bread for three days but someone had stolen it.  Manja was kind enough to give Ina a piece of bread. 

Ina wanted Jack to return her letters and she would return his.  She did not want strangers to see them.  She promised that after the war, they would give them back to each other.

                                        

Barbed Wire Fences

                                                         Barbed Wire Fence - Wikimedia

The End of the War

In 1945, the German troops began to retreat.  Eight thousand prisoners were sent away by the Nazis.  When the Americans put them on a truck, Ina’s rucksack fell out and her letters flew all around.  She left them there.  Only twelve of Ina’s letters survived.

Betty Finds Jack

Jack’s sister Betty had no idea if Jack might be alive.  She heard that transports had arrived in the Netherlands.  She put on her niece’s nurse’s uniform and went to the hospital.  When they asked her to treat some patients, she stated that these patients were too ill and should see a doctor.  Someone called out her name.  It was her brother Jack.  Jack wrote to Ina that Betty would tell her everything.  Ina received his letter along with some beautiful roses.

Jack and Manja Divorce

Manja agreed to divorce Jack so that he and Ina could marry.  Jack and Ina have three children, three grandchildren, and two great grandchildren.  They celebrated their 60th wedding anniversary.  Ina remarked that being married to Jack hasn’t brought one single dull moment yet.  They attended the Liberation Commemoration Day with Queen Beatrix in 2006.  Only 5,450 survivors returned.

Jack and Ina’s daughter Margrit translated their letters which were published in 2000.  Manje stayed in contact with them; she never remarried.

Thumbs Up

This was a delightful story, which has not contained all the details of their correspondence over all the years when they were held captive.  Their story reminds us of the resourcefulness of those who are willing to overcome difficulties to accomplish their dreams for the future.  They are role models for all of us.

 

 

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