A mother and daughter sit quietly in a kitchen. Sunlight streams in the window as 80something Ina Polak butters her Matzoh cracker. Margrit smiles, remembering, “I spent a lot of time in my childhood trying to figure out escape routes from our house. I had a million hiding places. And I still dream about the Nazis.”
Born of her parents’ experiences, Margrit’s nightmares underscore the ongoing effects of the Holocaust, even so many decades later and in Eastchester, N.Y. Like the children of other camp survivors, she learned of horrors even if her parents didn’t speak them directly. Unlike most other children of survivors, however, Margrit also heard stories of hope and romance, for it was in the deportation camp at Westerbork and the concentration camp at Bergen-Belsen that her parents fell in love, exchanging letters and brief glances amid all the desperation, dread, and death.
Even more dramatically, as chronicled in Steal a Pencil for Me, airing tonight as part of PBS’ Independent Lens programming, Ina and Jaap Polak’s relationship was also markedly complicated. Several years older than his paramour, Jaap (called Jack today) entered Westerbork with his wife, Manja. He had seen Ina Soep at a party in Amsterdam some time before, and, as he recalls, he was right away struck by this “wonderful girl” (“She was well to do, I was poor”). Manja was a good wife but, he asserts, they had long been drifting apart: “Many times, she stopped talking to me for a week.”
When, on 10 May 1940, the Germans came into Holland (“We heard planes, planes, planes flying over, says Ina, “We just knew we had been invaded”), it was only a matter of time before their lives were changed forever. Jaap’s sister Betty — early on a member of the Dutch Resistance — says she tried to get her brother and his wife to go into hiding but they refused. “I was leaving the house,” she remembers, “like someone who was already losing the best part of the family.” Her understanding of the threat was accurate, of course, and Jaap and other members of her family paid dearly for their refusal to recognize it, as they were transported to the Westerbork transit camp in July 1943. In Jaap’s recollection, his spirits were buoyed when, several months later, Ina arrived at the camp with her parents.
Steal a Pencil for Me makes clear the irony of this burgeoning romance. Ina and Jaap are now both well to do: she wears a fur coat and perfect makeup, Jaap speaks before audiences ranging from schoolchildren (“Never, never discriminate”) to the United Nations. They offer memories of their stolen moments, walking hand in hand in the camp’s dark night, exchanging letters full of poetry and longing (“He won my heart by sheer persistence, I would say”). At the time, he was a former accountant now running a school inside Weterbork and, Ina says, she insisted her heart belonged to her childhood boyfriend Rudy (photos show him smiling next to her), but she was also moved by the man who wooed her so fervently. Today, her eyes tear up when she speaks of Rudy: “I think about him often, he was actually such a large part of my teenage years.” When she learned that Rudy, like her brother Benno, had been killed by the Nazis, she held them together in her memory. “I just use these two people for everybody else,” she says.
Michele Ohayon’s film makes the couple’s complicated experience visible in reenactments and via photos and footage showing gaunt faces, camp routines, and corpses. Some of these images are awkward and obvious, others more subtle. A flutter of pigeons’ wings punctuates Jaap’s description of a Nazi raid, trains roll by in odious close-ups as he recalls the fiction that these were taking prisoners to work camps much like the transit site where they were living. “It was all part of the make-believe that Westerbork wasn’t that bad and the next camp would be like Westerbork. I would say 90% of the people in Westerbork believe that.”
Such beliefs were simultaneously life-sustaining and illusory. In this context, it is frankly moving that the film insists on the particular effects of words in a time and place when experience so exceeds description. Dutch-born actors Jeroen Krabbé and Ellen ten Damme read passages from the letters in English, Ina tearfully reads a poem her father wrote for her dead brother. Some letters appear on screen (only 12 of Ina’s survived the ordeal, and Jaap was able to keep many more of his), and more than once the film shows a hand writing — with a pencil — to illustrate the process of the romance, itself a kind of life-affirming fantasy.
The reality is surely affirmative as well, and the film skips over parts that might be difficult, say, Jaap’s divorce from Manja after their liberation from Bergen-Belsen. Rather, it stays focused on small, hopeful moments, recalled now, in a safe place. Margrit smiles warmly when she learns that her mother used to curl her hair each night in the camp. “I thought your obsession with your hair came later,” she exclaims. “Oh no, no,” Ina confesses, “From way back.”