Published May 25, 2010
Jack and Ina Polak
by: Nathan Weissler
  Issue: 11.05
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In 2000, Holocaust survivors Jack and Ina Soep Polak published Steal a Pencil for Me a book of their letters to one another while interned in Westerbork and Bergen-Belsen concentration camps. A documentary movie also entitled Steal a Pencil for Me was subsequently made of their lives. The Polaks have additionally spoken widely about the Holocaust and their personal experiences especially to youth and school groups. Jack Polak also served as President of the Anne Frank Center USA based in New York City for many years and is now President Emeritus. For his work, he was knighted by Queen Beatrix of the Netherlands on his eightieth birthday—December 31, 1992.

One evening, earlier this spring, I interviewed Jack and Ina Polak by telephone and learned a lot about their life experiences. Jack Polak was born in Amsterdam, Holland and raised in an Orthodox home. His father was active in the Mizrachi—Religious Zionist movement. Ina Soep, like her future husband, was born in Amsterdam on January 3, 1923, and was also raised Orthodox. Her father was head of the Ashkenazic Jewish Community of Amsterdam.

The schools in Amsterdam had only a half-day of classes on Shabbat, so the Polaks and their religious peers could not attend school. Jack Polak recalled, “We always picked up the work which was done on a Saturday morning by non-Jewish friends on a Sunday morning.” Ina Polak also described her early childhood years as joyous and peaceful. Although acknowledging a few individual cases of discrimination, she emphasized that, “It [Holland] was a very quiet, small country. There was no anti-Semitism. If there was any, it was never overt.”

In 1939, Jack Polak married Manja Pribludny whose family had come to the Netherlands from Russia. He then joined his father who was a Certified Public Accountant (CPA) in his practice as a tax consultant. In July 1943, Polak and Manja were arrested by the Nazis and subsequently deported to Westerbork where Polak worked as a school principal. They were later transferred to Bergen-Belsen, a concentration camp in Germany. After their liberation, Jack and Manja Polak divorced--their marriage had been unhappy for a significant amount of time by then. On January 29, 1946, Polak married Ina Soep whom he first met in 1943 at a Shabbat afternoon birthday party and dated in the concentration camps. Ina had been arrested in Amsterdam by the Nazis on Rosh Hashanah in 1943.

After the war, Jack and Ina Polak continued to live in Amsterdam for five years after which they settled in Eastchester, New York. They had three children: Frederick Benno Polak; Anthony Gerald Polak and Margrit Betty Polak. As previously mentioned, Polak is President Emeritus of the Anne Frank Center USA. “It’s all about education of course,” Ina Polak told me about the Anne Frank Center, “and it was first only about Anne Frank….[now] It’s more general you know [it emphasizes among other things teaching] tolerance [and combating] hate.” Polak was a founding member of the Westchester Holocaust Commission now known as the Holocaust and Human Rights Education Center in Westchester County, New York in addition to the New York State Holocaust Commission.

When I asked about how long and in what context the Holocaust will be remembered, Jack Polak told me, “… if you compare the way how important the Holocaust is now with…forty or fifty years ago, there’s no comparison. Today finally the Holocaust is important for the rest of the world.” As an example, Polak told me that when Elie Wiesel spoke at his family’s synagogue in 1960 only thirty people attended while more like a thousand people would come and hear him today.

Finally, what Ina Polak told me largely, though not solely, referring to the Holocaust, “…major, major historical events—they never totally die. They will always be remembered" should not only resonate with us but should, in the spirit of L Dor Va Dor, motivate us to continue this reality.

Today the Polaks live in Eastchester, New York and are still active in Holocaust education and remembrance.

For more information, see a brief informative article on the Anne Frank Center USA website.

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