No first-person account of life in a Nazi concentration camp could ever be called "romantic," but the story of Jack Polak and Ina Soep — two Dutch Jews who survived internment in Bergen-Belsen, and whose lives are chronicled in Michele Ohayon's uplifting documentary — comes close.
When the Nazis invaded Holland in May 1940, Jack Polak was a poor, unhappily married accountant working with his father and living with his wife, Manja, in a cramped Amsterdam house. Ina Soep, the teenage daughter of the second-biggest diamond manufacturer in Holland, was living a life of luxury in the comfortable bosom of her wealthy family. Within weeks of the invasion, the Nazis began instituting the strict anti-Semitic regulations served as a prelude to eventual deportation. Jews were no longer allowed to drive, their bicycles were confiscated along with most valuables, and they could only shop in Dutch stores between the hours of four and six. Nevertheless, Jewish life in Amsterdam continued as best as it could, and in June of 1943, Jack and Ina met at a mutual friend's birthday party. The attraction was immediate, and while Manja flirted with the guest of honor's father, Ina wondered what this ill-matched pair were doing married to each other. As the Germans began night raids on Dutch Jewish homes, Jack's sister, Betty, urged him to follow her into hiding (Betty soon joined the Dutch Resistance with her husband), but he refused, feeling too great a responsibility to Jewish clients trying to protect their financial assets from Nazi confiscation. In July 1943, Jack and Manja were deported to Westerbork, a Dutch transit camp originally built to house the German Jewish exiles who fled Germany in the preceding years. Two months later, Ina and her family (minus her brother, who had already been sent to Mauthausen, where he soon died) arrived in Westerbork on the very last transport. The romantic sparks that flew those few months before were reignited, and Jack, who'd been working as a principal at the camp's school (Westerbork was maintained by the Nazis as a "model camp," proof to the outside world that deported Jews were living under "good" conditions), even managed to get himself moved into the same barracks — along with Manja. Mrs. Polak's watchful eye meant that the lovers had to communicate largely through letters carried back and forth by Ina's sister, Josette, who agreed to act as go-between. The letters chronicle the blossoming of an undying love that faced a dreadful challenge when Ina, Jack and Manja were deported to the hellish, typhoid-ridden camp at Bergen-Belsen.
Amazingly, many of Jack's and Ina's letters survived and — read aloud by Dutch actors Jeroen Krabbe and Ellen Ten Damme — serve as the thematic thread that runs through Ohayon's film. The correspondence captures the horror of daily life at Bergen-Belsen — the filth, the backbreaking work, the starvation, the disease, the basic indignities attendant on survival — and the power of love to overcome the worst life has to offer. Today Jack, spry at 93, and Ina, still quite a beauty, obviously remain deeply in love. Ohayon follows them as they observe a Passover seder, speak to American schoolchildren about the Holocaust, and attend three commemorative ceremonies in 2006: the UN International Day of Commemoration, the Liberation Day Commemoration in Amsterdam and, most importantly, their own 60th wedding anniversary. leave a comment --Ken Fox