Steal a Pencil for Me tells the remarkable story of a romance that blossomed in a Nazi concentration camp and has endured for more than six decades. Though shadowed by suffering and death, it’s the rare Holocaust documentary with a happy ending.
In June 1943, Jaap Polak and Ina Soep met briefly at an Amsterdam birthday party. He was unhappily married; she was in her late teens. They met again in September when both were prisoners at Westabrook, a transit camp in Holland where Dutch Jews stayed before being shipped east. Jaap and his wife Manja, who had agreed to end their rocky marriage after the war, had arrived in July along with various relations. Ina, from a wealthy diamond manufacturing family, was deported with her parents.
They fell in love, but because Manja (despite allegedly having her own affair) objected to the openness of the relationship, they conducted their romance for nearly two years primarily via letter. By coincidence, all three were sent to Bergen-Belsen and were ultimately fortunate enough to be among the approximately 5,000 survivors out of 110,000 the Germans deported from Holland. In April 1945, Jaap was liberated by the Russians and Ina by American soldiers. They reunited in Amsterdam two months later and, after Jaap and Manja divorced, got married in January 1946. They had three children and moved to the United States in 1951.
Inspired by a book based on the letters they exchanged while interned, the movie is both a testament to the power of love and a profile of two charismatic individuals. Jaap and Ina describe their saga to the camera and to groups they address at various events. We travel with them to Amsterdam and Bergen-Belsen and see them in the New York area, where they settled and where they celebrated their 60th wedding anniversary in 2006. Knowing their testimony doesn’t require much embellishment, director Michele Ohayon provides just enough context, making use of popular music from the period, as well as photos and archival footage. Two actors—Jeroen Krabbe and Ellen Ten Damme—read from the letters in voiceover.
What remains unspoken and unwritten about the couple’s ordeal is arguably more powerful than the obvious joy they still bring one another. Because it goes beneath the facts to the heart of the Holocaust, Steal a Pencil for Me serves as a unique entry point and, to the extent possible, as an inspirational end point for trying to understand the full meaning of those harrowing historical events.
Distributor: Seventh Art
Director/Screenwriter: Michele Ohayon
Producers: Michele Ohayon and Theo van de Sande
Genre: Documentary; English- and Dutch-language, subtitled
Running time: 94 min.
Release date: November 9, 2007 NY/LA