Archive for September, 2011

Another Good Holocaust Movie: Steal a Pencil

Posted: September 18, 2011 in Film

Last night, I saw a very good Holocaust movie about an usual situation best summed up in this statement made by a Dutch Jew named Jack Pollak: “I’’m a very special Holocaust survivor. I was in the camps with my wife and my girlfriend; and believe me, it wasn’t easy.” Turns out that Jack and his wife, Manja, who were in an unhappy marriage and planned to divorce as soon as the war was over, ended up first in a model Nazi camp, Westerbork, along with a woman named Ina Saep, who Jack and Manja knew from Amsterdam. While the stay in Westerbork was nice enough, given that it was a camp that even had its own sports teams and served as an illusion for the rest of the world about how concentration camps weren’t so bad, Jack and Ina were smitten and struggling with their situation. So they wrote letters back and forth.

A little love triangle was obviously not the worst of their troubles. Soon Jack and Manja, and shortly afterwards Ina, were transferred to Bergen-Belsen, all of them following the same trail that brought Anne Frank to her death at Bergen-Belsen from Typhoid. Only all three of these people lived, Jack and Ina exchanging deeply moving and particularly articulate love letters throughout their fourteen months at Bergen-Belsen. As each of them suffer from typhoid, other diseases and persistent lice, hunger and other threats to any sense of comfort, they find solace in the letters they exchange, and as time goes on, they use their letters to pour all the encouragement they can muster into the other, helping the other find the will to live.

In April of 1944, Jack is put on a train heading east, and Ina is put on a train heading west. Over the next two months, Jack succumbs to such illness that he actually falls into a coma and when he awakens, he’s down to 70 pounds. It takes the war-crossed lovers two months to find each other.

What makes this movie so moving is the juxtaposition of Jack and Ina today — traveling back to Holland or to speak at the U.N. or just hanging out with the four generations of their family in the U.S — with the unfolding of their story, historical footage and most of all, the power of Jack’s words in his long-ago letters to Ina. You can hear clips of some of his words here. The Village Voice says of this movie, “At once tender and tough-minded, Steal a Pencil for Me offers a useful corrective to the sentimental prevailing notion that the Shoah only happened to saints.” I felt the same way — these were real people with real foibles, and yet at the same time, I went to sleep after seeing this film with images of the two of them, Jack now 93 and still lit up in love with Ina, who is still quite taken with Jack too. There’s a grace in these two that comes not just from survival, but from each still being astonished that their impossible dream of surviving the war, marrying and making a life together, against all reason and odds, came true.