Ina Soep Polak couldn’t believe it when she arrived at the Bergen-Belsen concentration camp in May 1944 and an acquaintance told her about the horrid conditions there. Although she had heard of the infamous camp during her time at the Dutch deportation camp Westerbork, this was the first she and her family heard a firsthand account about conditions so horrible that the average inmate’s life expectancy was said to be nine months.
Polak, now 89, recalled her extraordinary survival story during a recent program at Temple Israel of Great Neck, L.I.
She and her family had lived in Westerbork — where she worked in the linen room — for nine months before undertaking the daylong trip to Bergen-Belsen, leaving the Netherlands for the camp in northern Germany aboard the Dutch Railroad.
Through a barbed wire fence at Bergen-Belsen, the girl informed Polak that she was coming from Auschwitz and that their mutual friends had all been killed in the gas chambers there.
“I thought, I truly thought, that this was just something they [fellow prisoners] had been told to say just to make us feel even worse,” Polak said.
Polak in 1946 married Jaap Polak, a fellow survivor with whom she had corresponded throughout their time in Westerbork and Bergen-Belsen. There were two reasons for her survival, she told her audience. One is that she and her family were housed in a small, special camp at Bergen-Belsen called “Sternlager,” meaning, “star camp.” They enjoyed this semi-protected status in part because of her father’s connection to the diamond industry. The SS wanted to keep alive those who had professional experience with diamonds in the hope that knowledge could be used to advance their own businesses.
But perhaps even more importantly was the fact that the family held false Salvadoran citizenship papers they had been given as part of a broad diplomatic effort by Salvadoran officials to save Jews throughout Europe. Although the certificates could not save Ina’s older brother — he had been taken from his home in the Netherlands and killed in the Austrian work camp Mauthausen before Ina and the rest of the family were even evicted from their home — they proved crucial to ensuring the survival of Ina, her younger sister and parents.
In Sternlager, Polak, 21, and her sister, 20, were permitted to wear their own clothing — albeit with a yellow star — but they had to endure “hours of daily roll call, no matter the weather… we were always standing; our job was to stand.”
Meals were meager, with breakfast and dinner each consisting of a single slice of bread perhaps with a small amount of margarine, and a lunch of watery turnip soup. Occasionally, if potatoes or horsemeat had been put in the soup, fights would break out under the suspicion that the ladler had shown preferential treatment.
Ina used secretarial skills earned before the war to take and transcribe the minutes of meetings at which the Nazis discussed the technical elements of establishing a diamond industry.
It was 11 months before Polak and her family were liberated. They were on a train along with 2,500 prisoners for a mass deportation from Bergen-Belsen when U.S. troops freed them near the village of Farsleban in April 1945.
Although Polak and her husband published their letters from the war in a book, “Steal a Pencil for Me,” she also recorded her experiences during the Holocaust in the film “Glass House,” excerpts of which were shown as part of her talk. The documentary reveals the heroic undertakings of Jose Arturo Costellanos, the Consul General from El Salvador, and George Mandel-Mantello, a Jewish Transylvanian businessman.
Mandel-Mantello escaped Nazi persecution in Yugoslavia in 1941, fled to Switzerland and was appointed First Secretary of the Salvadoran consulate in Geneva by Costellanos, whom he knew from previous business dealings. Upon joining the consulate, Mandel adopted the more Spanish-sounding name Mantello, thus his hyphenated name.
Together, Costellanos and Mantello are credited with saving more than 20,000 Jews, including Ina and her family. By distributing false citizenship papers completely free of charge, the Salvadorans effectively granted recipients a protected status because of what Polak termed the Nazi “affliction” of honoring any official document.
Another reason the Nazis spared Jewish “Salvadoran” families — in Polak’s case setting them apart in special camps designed neither for labor nor extermination — was their need to keep valuable diplomatic ties and not risk jeopardizing future prisoner exchange opportunities.
Utilizing this kind of political pressure was a method shared by officials from several other countries, including Swiss diplomat Carl Lutz — whose safe house in Budapest provides the title for the movie “Glass House” — and Swedish diplomat Raoul Wallenberg.
The recent celebration of Wallenberg’s 100th birthday in Budapest has launched a new commemorative initiative, complete with plans for a high school history competition focusing on the Holocaust, a meeting of Hungarians honored by Yad Vashem as Righteous Among the Nations, and even a newly designed postage stamp.
Similarly, the Temple Israel program, organized by the Holocaust Memorial and Tolerance Center of Nassau County and the Jewish Community Relations Council-Long Island (JCRCLI), celebrated the wartime actions of the Salvadoran diplomats while announcing a new effort to sustain the link between the two communities.
Luis Herrera, head of Zoomy Productions, and JCRCLI Executive Director David Newman, plan to bring together local Jewish and Salvadoran business people to form a networking and career advancement coalition. The two have organized other events together in the past year, the first of which can be viewed on YouTube.