Jack Polak states the situation quite succinctly at the outset of Michele Ohayon’s new documentary, “Steal a Pencil for Me.” The engaging nonagenarian, who is one of the film’s central figures, smiles slyly at the camera and says, “I’m a very special Holocaust survivor. I was in the camps with my wife and my girlfriend and, believe me, it wasn’t easy.”
It’s a line that leads one to expect something akin to a Billy Wilder farce with a horrifyingly grim setting. Or perhaps Mel Brooks. But this is a true story, a vivid reminder that truth really is stranger than fiction or, at the very least, less concerned with good taste.
The reality is that the situation Polak describes is, in a nutshell, exactly what happened to him, his wife Manja and the well-to-do young lady with whom he was smitten, Ina Soep. The members of this mismatched trio knew one another before the outbreak of World War II, when they were part of the small but lively Jewish community of Amsterdam.
Polak was an accountant, married to the mercurial, moody Manja when he met Ina at a birthday party. He was immediately taken with the pretty, vivacious 20-year-old, particularly since his wife was sitting on their host’s lap and flirting up a storm. The potential storm, however, didn’t break and the couple went their separate way from the younger woman.
Regrettably, the three were reunited the fall of 1943 in the Westerbork transit camp, the last stop for Dutch Jews before the transports east. There Jack and Ina began a chaste but ardent courtship, much to Manja’s displeasure. Eventually, to ease his wife’s suspicions and distress, Jack limited his contact with Ina to a series of letters that would continue through the trio’s deportation to Bergen-Belsen and through their liberation as the war drew to a close. (The correspondence was facilitated in the most unlikely way in the death camp, where Ina managed to get a job in one of the offices, thanks to her somewhat rusty knowledge of German shorthand. There she had a large supply of paper and pencils, hence the film’s title.) Late in 1945, Jack gave Manja a get, and on Jan. 29, 1946 Jack married Ina. The new couple would go on to have three children, and at the time of Ohayon’s filming, Jack and Ina were celebrating their 60th wedding anniversary, which looms large in the film’s final section.
This is, to say the least, a departure from the usual Holocaust story, and given that Ina and Jack are both warm and funny people, one would expect some of the humor of the situation to emerge. Certainly, throughout the film’s 94-minute running time, there are intimations that each of them can and did see some of the black comedy of their position, particularly in Westerbork, where their lives were somewhat less threatened.
But Ohayon resolutely shies away from exploring that side of the story. Given the doggedness with she recounts Jack and Ina’s lives together in strict chronology, the film that results is frequently a disappointingly ordinary one, much like so many films about individuals caught up in the Shoah.
Don’t misunderstand. I am not arguing for a comic treatment of the Holocaust, particularly in a documentary film, although in the hands of a very few filmmakers such a thing has been done, even successfully. (I am thinking, of course, of Chaplin’s “The Great Dictator” and Lubitsch’s “To Be or Not to Be,” both of them fictional treatments of this sober material.) And if one thinks back to Amir Bar-Lev’s “Fighter” (2000), there is even precedent for a degree of humor in a Holocaust documentary, in this case most of it developing out of the personal wit of novelist and survivor Arnost Lustig.
What I am saying is that Ohayon’s rather literal-minded approach to her subject robs her film of some of the personality of its protagonists. “Steal a Pencil for Me” should finally be as effervescent and as tender as Jack and Ina are themselves. Then it would do real justice to their story in all its uniqueness. Instead, “Steal a Pencil” feels like an opportunity missed, albeit one that is leavened somewhat by the charm of Jack and Ina Polak.
“Steal A Pencil for Me,” by Michele Ohayon, opens on Friday, Nov. 9 at the Quad Cinema (34 W. 13th St.). For information, call (212) 255-8800 or go to www.quadcinema.com.