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Film Looks at Daily Life of Holocaust Camps

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Film Looks at Daily Life of Holocaust Camps

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Film Looks at Daily Life of Holocaust Camps

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SCOTT SIMON, host:

This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Scott Simon.

Coming up, eight decades of letters by six controversial sisters.

But first…

(Soundbite of movie, "Steal a Pencil for Me")

Mr. JACK POLAK (Author, "Steal a Pencil for Me: Love Letters from Camp Bergen-Belsen and Westerbork"): I'm a very special holocaust survivor. I was in a camp with my wife and my girlfriend. And believe me, it was not easy.

SIMON: A love triangle with a trace of humor isn't what you might expect from a holocaust film, yet that's exactly the basis for a new documentary, "Steal a Pencil for Me."

Iris Mann reports.

IRIS MANN: Jaap and Ina Polak never talk much about their experiences during the war, says their daughter Margaret. She remembers snooping in the attic one day when she found a bunch of love letters written in concentration camps.

Ms. MARGARET A. LOESCH (Producer, Steal a Pencil for Me: Love Letters from Camp Bergen-Belsen and Westerbork"): My father's parents were gassed, my mother's brother was shot in bath houses. I mean, the stories are all laid out underneath the love.

MANN: She spent seven years translating the letters.

Ms. LOESCH: I wanted the kind of relationship: I was in love with them; I was freaked out; I fell apart; I put myself back together - wooh(ph), it was intense.

MANN: She gave them to her parents for their 40th wedding anniversary. Friends who read them said they should be published, and in 2000, they came out in a book called "Steal a Pencil for Me."

Margaret reads one of her favorites.

Ms. LOESCH: (Reading) If we both deal with the knowledge that these few days, too, will past, then the best that could happen would be that these few days will improve our archives. And in 26 years, when we are celebrating our 25th wedding anniversary, they will write and perform a great review about our life. Am I not an optimist?

MANN: Their story became a documentary when Margaret gave filmmaker Michele Ohayon a copy of the book.

Ms. MICHELE OHAYON (Director, "Still a Pencil for Me"): When we hear about the camps and the holocaust, we only think - and rightly so - of images of hunger, and death, and starvation, and sickness. This was a whole different look: It was a human spirit look, how our emotions are beyond and above the suffering, and it almost feels like it's telling you that love is stronger than death.

MANN: Jaap Polak will be 95 next month, and now goes by the name Jack. He remembers it was love at first sight when he met Ina Soep at a birthday party in 1943; the only problem was he was married. He and his wife agreed it wasn't a good match though, and they planned to divorce. But the three wound up at Westerbork, a concentration camp in the Netherlands. Jack and Ina took walks together, and when his wife objected, they began exchanging letters. In the film, the letters are read by actors.

(Soundbite of movie, "Steal a Pencil for Me")

Mr. JEROEN KRABBE (Voice Talent): (As Jack Polak) If there's anything wrong in our relationship, it is that you are afraid that due to my unfortunate marriage with Manja, I was driven to the arms of the first girl I saw was available. Don't be afraid of this, please, because I want to call you my wife since I feel more of a similarity in character with you in a few weeks than in the seven years that I've known Manja.

MANN: Sitting together in New York, the couple now says the letters gave them both a reason to live.

Ms. INA SOEP-POLAK (Author, "Steal a Pencil for Me: Love Letters from Camp Bergen-Belsen and Westerbork"): I think just a thought that there was somebody, you know, I was 20 years old, you like to have somebody in your life that is interested in you and that is not your sister or your parents. So I really started to trust him and confide in him and, you know, smooch a little when it was really dark and stuff like that, like what very young adults do - and oldest- older do.

Mr. POLAK: I explained in all these letters all the hopes of a normal life which we could have together if God would give us a survival; that kept us completely going. I will say I was almost fighting to survive in order to be able to have a happy life after the war with a wonderful girl.

MANN: They were ultimately transported to Bergen-Belsen. While it wasn't an extermination camp, there was death all around them from maltreatment, disease and starvation.

(Soundbite of movie, "Steal a Pencil for Me")

Ms. ELLEN TEN DAMME (Voice Talent): (As Ina Soep) Oh, my sweet darling, yesterday we had a crazy and emotion-filled day. First, Uncle Han's(ph) funeral. How terribly shameful it was - without a casket, with rough couples(ph) throwing the body on a cart. I'm worried about my father - he has such a hard time. Why is it all taking so very long, and there are so many more victims. Soon there will be nothing left.

MANN: They managed to survive until they were liberated in 1945. After Jack got a divorce, he and Ina were married, and they immigrated to the United States in 1951. Through the eyes of these two individuals, filmmaker Michele Ohayon says she wanted to tell a greater truth.

Ms. OHAYON: If we're not watching the world and we're not watching our freedom and our rights, we will lose it. And that big message I want to tell through this very intimate, personal love story. I don't want to hammer people over the head; that's not my intention. I just want to say, here's the human spirit, let's keep it.

MANN: Ohayon also finds it almost unbelievable that the Polaks are not bitter. Jack calls himself a happy holocaust survivor.

Mr. POLAK: First of all, God gave me life to do whatever I can, but most important, my family. I have a wonderful wife - you have heard her - and I love her just as much as I explained in all my letters; we have three children; we have five grandchildren; we have two great-grandchildren. When I see that picture we have of this whole group, then I call that my victory over Hitler.

Ms. SOEP: He calls it a victory. I call it revenge.

MANN: For NPR News, I'm Iris Mann.

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