Jaap Polak walks gingerly these days, leaning on a cane or holding the rail as he climbs the stairs to his second-floor room at The Sparhawk, a comfortable waterfront resort in the southern Maine town of Ogunquit. That’s where, for more than half a century, he and his wife, Ina Soep, have spent a few weeks in August – and that’s where I first got to know this couple and learned their remarkable story.
The Dutch-born Jaap (“Jack” to his American friends) no longer reads a book each day and his hearing is going. But, at 99, this Holocaust survivor retains a sharp mind, captivating smile, and indomitable spirit.
He and Ina have a story that’s both charming and important. It speaks to the power of love, to the human instinct to survive in the midst of horror, to the role of fate in determining who lives and who dies. It also speaks to Santayana’s dictum – “those who cannot learn from history are doomed to repeat it” – and to the responsibility of older generations to teach history’s lessons to the young.
The story begins in 1943, with the Nazis controlling all of Holland and imposing their “Final Solution” on its Jews.
In Amsterdam, Jack meets Ina at a birthday party and is immediately smitten. But Jack, who was a struggling accountant, was already stuck in an unhappy marriage to a difficult woman named Manja.
In July of that year, Jack and Manja are deported to the Westerbork transit camp (where Anne Frank spent time). Ina arrives in September and Jack and Ina try to spend time together – but it’s not easy with Manja watching. So, they begin writing love letters to one another on whatever scraps of paper they can find.
Then, in early 1944, Jack and Manja are sent to the much harsher Bergen-Belsen camp. Jack says goodbye to Ina, expressing hope that he’ll see her again. A few months later, Ina is on a train to Auschwitz but, for unknown reasons, it’s rerouted to Bergen-Belsen, putting the three together again.
Meanwhile, Jack, Manja, and Ina are all losing family and friends. By 1943, Ina’s brother and boyfriend are on their way to extermination. That year, Jack’s parents are deported and die at the
Sobibor death camp in Poland. In early 1944, Manja’s mother is deported and dies at Auschwitz.
Life is much crueler at Bergen-Belsen than Westerbork, but Jack and Ina manage to keep writing letters to one another. In one, he begs her to “steal a pencil for me” because his pencil is worn down. The phrase – “steal a pencil for me” – was later the title of their book and a film on their experience.
“I feel,” Jack writes Ina at Westerbork, “when I’m with you, and crazily enough, when I’m not with you, a sense of peace that I have never really known with any other girl. I have the feeling that we completely understand each other, even when we don’t speak a word; and if this is true, then things are going to be so very good between us.”
“At last!” Jack writes when he reunites with her at Bergen-Belsen. “… Your presence here is already a ray of light for me. As it was in Westerbork, I feel completely at ease with you.”
“My dear, dear little Jaap,” Ina writes on a “Sabbath” day in early 1945, “I can tell from the tone of your letter that you are still quite strong, and that you make the best of our pathetic life here, and that gives me such unbelievable pleasure. That is the most important strength for our race to the finish line.”
As World War II was ending, Jack and Ina’s luck seemed to be ending with it. In April of 1945,
Jack was put on a train heading east while Ina was put on a train heading west. But, within days, Russian troops liberated the former while U.S. forces liberated the latter. Jack would have to survive one further brush with death, contracting spotted typhus and falling into a coma for two days in late April.
It was not until June that Jack and Ina found their way to one another in a liberated Holland. Jack divorced Manja later that year and married Ina in early 1946, starting a family that soon included three children.
In later years, Jack and Ina never forgot where they’d been. Jack served as director, president, chairman, and finally chairman emeritus of the Anne Frank Center USA. He was knighted for those efforts by the Netherlands’ Queen Beatrix in 1992 and, among his many awards, he received an honorary doctorate from Hofstra University. At a candlelight ceremony at the United Nations, Jack and Ina were honored at the first International Day of Commemorating Victims of the Holocaust.
Most of all, Jack has been an educator, speaking at schools, churches, synagogues, and other organizations to impart his six lessons:
- Don’t discriminate.
- Don’t generalize.
- Don’t be a bystander.
- Work for peace.
- Enjoy the simple things in life.
- We are living in a wonderful country and we all need to work together to make this a better world. But this can only be achieved if people learn the lessons of the Holocaust.
The other day, Jack and Ina spent their last morning of this August at The Sparhawk before returning to their home in the New York suburbs. As they ate breakfast in the dining room, guests and staff stopped by to see them off.
As Jack stood up to leave, I approached him, stuck out my hand, and said forcefully, “Next year.”
“I hope so,” he replied with a broad smile.
I leaned in, returned the smile, and said, “Next year.”
Next year – and for many years to come.