Such Virtue Hath My Pen
Just as the Holocaust slows in screen presence, along comes Steal a Pencil for Me with its most unexpected approach. Unbelievably, this is a picture, not only of survival, but also of love flowering among the ruins of Europe as its Jewish population was being decimated.
California-based Israeli director-producer Michèle Ohayon’s ninety-four minutes creatively adapt the 2000 book by husband and wife survivors Jaap “Jack” Polak and Ina Soep. Both versions celebrate lifeforce in the face of manmade horror and represent a humanistic never-forget, particularly to children, including their own. The couple regularly appear at Holocaust memorials, and he maintains a longtime involvement with the Anne Frank Center.
Sandwiched around and throughout are the figures of Jack and Ina today, he a wiry active ninety-three, she attractively silver-haired at ten years younger. Married sixty years, they are guide-commentators, explaining past events and people and b&w snapshots; in color crossing footbridges in Amsterdam, condemning discrimination to a school class as a “real Jew” visiting work camp memorial grounds, speaking to teary American students, reading the Torah with grandchildren and celebrating the Passover Seder with family, even kidding before the camera about their sex life,
What they recur to, what furnishes title as well as connective tissue, are the mutual letters delivered surreptitiously back-and-forth over nineteen months, from autumn 1943, when, sent separately, both were first together in the same Westerbork work-transit camp, then through Bergen Belsen concentration camp, to which, again by coincidence, both were also subsequently transferred, later to be put into cattle cars going one east, one west, and finally freed by different Allied armies. Unsendable correspondence went on for additional months during post-VE Day chaos, when his sister Juul died and he was accidentally discovered in a hospital by remaining sister Betty and reunited with, later married to, Ina.
His often in pencil, hers with a fountain pen, and treating of practical advice, the routine and the horrific and of love, the letters are written superimposed on-screen to voiceover (neither hands nor voices actually the principals’). One questions what of the contents is real, what memory- or situation-reimagined, since for security and moral reasons Ina had requested that each return the other’s and then, boarding an American truck, lost all but a dozen of them.
There is letter-talk of the suffering and inhuman conditions, deportations and deaths of friends and family (his parents, her brother and an earlier boyfriend), happiness recounted at glimpsing one another in a second’s passing, and counsel from him as mentor to the less experienced woman. Mixed with love and dreams are references to, and inserted photos of, Jack’s wife Manja, whose existence, presence in the same barracks in the same camp, and jealous eye (despite a boyfriend) are what cause even greater personal circumspection as well as give such a unique path to the story.
The struggling accountant had met his future second wife at a party, but not until they found themselves interned in the same place could he begin to speak of love, albeit only on the handwritten page, to the twenty-year-old daughter of a well-off diamond manufacturer. A synagogue-sanctioned divorce from Manja was out of the question, so the two lovers-at-first-sight had to be satisfied with letters for the moment and, at times they must have thought, for ever.
Like a character out of Isaac Bashevis Singer, “in the camps with my wife and my girlfriend,” he says, “believe me, it wasn’t easy.” Jack getting a divorce months after the end of hostilities and red tape, the couple married early the following year and had two sons in a weary Old World before a permanent move to the New.
Their story is interspersed with footage and recreations of atrocities that surrounded the unusual courtship, but what comes across, amazingly, is more than a half-century of bliss, beginning as love in a dungheap. A hundred seventy-six years between them, Jack and Ina might in other hands have verged on the cloying but are here attractive, active and enviable. Their joie de vivre in each other and each moment is a witness to the power of people, the will to live and to love.
(Released by Red Envelope Productions; not rated by MPAA.)