I know that there are people that don’t like documentaries. I know there are people that don’t like subtitled movies. Conversely, I know that there are people that ONLY watch documentaries or movies with subtitles. I am neither of these people. I like all movies, and occasionally I find myself in the mood for a true story or something a bit more realistic than the CGI enhanced schlock that seems to be prevalent among today’s selection.
I had recorded the movie Steal A Pencil For Me when it aired on my local PBS station a few months ago. I hadn’t been in the mood, so to speak, for a story about two people in a German Concentration Camp. Depressing movie, I thought. Gritty subject matter, I figured. Plus, I didn’t feel like crying as I was almost certain I would.
Well, the only part I got right was the crying. What a moving story. Two individuals meet in Holland at a mutual friend’s birthday party in the early 1940s. She is 17, he is 27–and married. His marriage is over, and both parties involved know it but agree to wait until after the war to get divorced. Then Hitler invades Holland and their entire world is changed.
They meet again at Camp Westerbork. First the married couple, then the young lady and her family arrive. Westerbork was an exception to the norm of interrment camps, as it was basically a holding location for people to go on to Auschwitz-Birkenau, Sobibór, Bergen-Belsen and Theresienstadt. Every Tuesday trains would leave, transporting more and more people to these other camps. What the people at Westerbork did not know was that at the other camps life would be quite different. Anne Frank was a resident at Westerbork before leaving on the last day to Auschwitz, later sent to Bergen-Belsen where she died from typhus. Etty Hillesum and Dora Gerson were also residents, both also went to Auschwitz. And Jaap and Ina Polak were both sent, at different times, to Bergen-Belsen.
Yet despite the grimness of the setting, the story, and the circumstance there evolves a love story. Although the marriage was over, Jaap’s wife Manja did not approve of his walks with girlfriend Ina, so the two resorted to writing letters back and forth and sending them to one another in the camp. When Jaap left Westerbork he did not know if he would ever see Ina again, and then when she, too, was sent to Bergen-Belsen it seemed enough of a miracle. Illness and disease waited for them there, and once the camp was liberated again the two did not know if they would ever see one another. Jaap’s sister, who had fled prior to the war, found him in Holland on a transport. As a nurse, she was allowed access to the prisoners. She didn’t even recognize her brother as he weighed less than 80 pounds due to malnutrition and typhus.
The two were able to reconnect after the war. Manja and Jaap were divorced, and Ina and Jaap were able to get married in 1946. This movie was a celebration of their 60th wedding anniversary, and showed them walking among the stars at Bergen-Belsen, returning to the places they lived before the war, and celebrating their life together here in the United States and for the past sixty years.
It is a truly moving film, and one that I’ll not soon forget. Despite the decisions that they had to make, the issues that they faced, the horrible circumstances in which they lived, these two Dutch survivors are an inspiration to many.