The Reeler


November 8, 2007

Steal a Pencil For Me

A happy ending to a story of the holocaust, infidelity and some seriously crazy love

Inspired by a collection of letters that share its title, Steal a Pencil For Me is the story of Jaap and Ina Polak, a couple who fell in love while imprisoned in Holland’s Westerbork concentration camp in 1943. It is also the story of Manja Polak, the woman Jaap was married to at the time: "I'm a very special Holocaust survivor," he says in the introduction, "I was in a camp with my wife and my girlfriend, and believe me, it wasn't easy."

Director Michèle Ohayon (Colors Straight Up) knows a good zinger when she hears one, though with subjects so rich in organic, compelling material, there’s not a big call for punching up. The War, Ken Burns's towering World War II documentary, is just the latest (or largest) reminder that our appetite for stories from this period seems ever-sharp; Paul Verhoeven’s Black Book proved this spring that the feature format is also still fruitfully mining the period -- his Dutch, Jewish protagonist, a spy and secret member of the Resistance, was one of the heroines of the year. Steal a Pencil also takes place in the Netherlands and features a Dutch, Jewish member of the Resistance, but in this case she is the sister of one of the key players, an unassuming accountant named Jaap. Rather than join his sister underground in 1943, Jaap and his unhappy wife Manja were transported from Amsterdam to Westerbork, where Jaap found Ina, a well-to-do young woman he had met briefly at home, and who had intrigued him to distraction.

Ohayon has gathered some striking footage from the period and from Westerbork in particular, where the surprise is in how civilized life looked to be, full of soccer games and nightly entertainment, complete with a school and a hospital. What its inhabitants can’t help noticing, however, are the 2,000 Jews shipped out every Tuesday, most of them to extermination camps; Westerbork was one of the fronts the Nazis used to show the rest of the world how humanely they were treating their captives. Despite these transports, even a grown man like Jaap -- 30 at the time -- is in a supreme state of denial about what is really happening when he helps load his fellow Jews, including his parents, onto the cattle cars headed to Auschwitz.

Among all of this shrouded horror and uncertainty, love blooms, stubborn and pure, between Jaap and the young Ina, who walk together in the evenings and then, when Manja objects, communicate only through letters passed back and forth by Ina’s sister. "My sweetest darling," he writes; "My always dearest love," she replies, and when they are both eventually sent to the much more brutal destination of Bergen-Belsen, where Ina begins secretarial duties, Jaap implores her to steal him a new pencil, so that he might keep up his end of the correspondence sustaining them both.

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Steal a Pencil combines readings of the surviving letters (voiced with touching sensitivity by actors Jeroen Krabbe and Ellen Ten Damme), period footage and interviews with Jaap (now a spry 93) and Ina (who knows, but she looks fantastic) to bring to bear the most moving story about infidelity you may ever hear. Compared to the lurid, tabloid-esque elements of Crazy Love, this year's other oldie "true love" saga, which finds elderly Burt Pagach and Linda Riss reminiscing about that time he disfigured her all those years ago, scenes of Jaap and Ina revisiting the grounds where they fell in love and stole smooches behind his wife's back at ye olde concentration camp are positively heartwarming.

Ohayon captures some remarkable moments while following the couple from the United States (where they settled) back to their homes and the camps in Holland. While exploring Westerbork, they happen upon a group of what seem to be Dutch schoolchildren, and Jaap can't help but tell them that had they been alive -- and Jewish -- 60 years ago, they would have gone to school here and he would have been their principal. "Look children," their teacher says. "That is a real Jew. Can you see the difference between him and I?" It is a remark both repellant and telling; by treating Jaap as a kind of museum piece (he reacts viscerally, imploring the kids not to discriminate) she reminds us, rather hideously, that 70 percent of Holland's Jews were wiped out in WWII. It just may not be that often that you come across a "real" one.

Back at home, Jaap addresses the UN with a reading from the Human Rights Act, Ina at his side. "The usual pictures," she says dismissively, as the couple walk past an exhibit featuring recently liberated Auschwitz captives; she later warns her husband not to become emotional. When her daughter Margrit complains that she never talked about her experiences in the war, Ina becomes almost brittle in her practicality: who would speak of such things, willingly? The story of their affair, however, was an entry point they could both deal with (Margrit translated their gorgeous letters for the book); a happy ending, if not beginning. Jaap, down to 70 pounds by the time of liberation, divorced Manja soon after the war ended, and found Ina after several months of uncertainty about her survival; they recently celebrated their 60th wedding anniversary. Now that is some seriously crazy love.

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