The composer Gerald Cohen has known Jack and Ina Polak for over 25 years, first as their cantor at Shaarei Tikvah Congregation in Scarsdale and, gradually, as a friend. So when he asked the couple if he could adapt the story of their time in Bergen-Belsen as an opera, it was likely they would say yes.
But Jack and Ina have a slightly more complicated story than most survivors. You may even know it, since Jack published it as a book, “Steal a Pencil for Me,” in 2001, and Michele Ohayon filmed it six years later under the same title. Jack put it simply in the film: “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.”
Although he had read the book when it was published, it was only when he saw the film that Cohen saw the operatic possibilities, which have come to fruition as under the same title, with semi-staged concert performances of the new work scheduled for April 28 and 30.
“It’s a love story with complications,” Cohen says. “It’s intimate and deeply moving and, set against the immensity of the Holocaust, it seemed to me an operatic subject. The story has elements of romance, almost romantic comedy.”
Three years ago, Cohen approached the Polaks and asked if he could try to set the story. They were, Cohen admits, a bit surprised. Jack turned 100 and Ina 90 in January. Jack, consequently, had one piece of advice for the composer: “Write it quickly.”
So Cohen and librettist Deborah Brevoort set to work.
“We spoke a long time how to structure the opera,” he recalls. “The idea of writing about living people I know is complicated. I spent quite a bit of time talking to Jack and Ina to get as much of the detail and flavor of their lives [in the Westerbork transit camp and Bergen-Belsen], how they met, all these things. And they were amazing to talk to.”
Jack, of course, has told the story many times, but the biggest treat for Cohen was the e-mail relationship he developed with Ina.
“She just loved answering those e-mails,” he says.
Had it not been for the intervention of the Nazis, the Polaks’ story might have been rather more conventional. Before the outbreak of war, Polak, an accountant was married to Manja, a mercurial, moody woman, when he met Ina at somebody’s 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 married couple went its 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. And it was in that unlikely and inhospitable setting that the romance really began.
Cohen received the inspiration for his first act curtain from an historical fact about Westerbork, a good example of the way that the texture of real life was worked into the opera by its creators.
“In Westerbork, they had cabarets each week,” he explains. “So Act One ends with a cabaret scene. There’s a raunchy song performed about a young woman with an older man, Jack and Ina get upset, the chorus starts to gossip, then the commandant comes in and announces that they’re being sent to Bergen-Belsen.”
It is a brutal juxtaposition that serves as a reminder that we are not watching a French farce, despite the comic potential of the relationships. Such an abrupt shift in tone is precisely the effect that Cohen and Brevoort were seeking.
“Deborah really tapped into that [comic element] and found a way to embed it within the larger serious events,” Cohen says. “There are a lot of shifts in mood. That’s one way, I hope, that the opera works well dramatically.”
Neither of the scheduled performances will use a full orchestra. Currently, the opera is written to be performed by a chamber ensemble of piano, clarinet, violin and cello. But that instrumentation isn’t etched in stone.
“I don’t see this as the final ensemble,” Cohen says. “It’s a big opera in that there are nine characters and a chorus, but it could be done, eventually, with a chamber orchestra. At least this version will give us some sense of what the colors will be.”
And Jack and Ina will have a chance to hear their story sung.
The opera “Steal a Pencil for Me” will be performed in a semi-staged concert version on Sunday, April 28, 2 p.m., at Shaarei Tikvah Congregation (46 Fox Meadow Road, Scarsdale); for information, call (914) 472-2013. The opera will also be performed on Tuesday, April 30, 7 p.m., at Feinberg Auditorium, Jewish Theological Seminary (Broadway and 122nd Street). For information, go to www.jtsa.edu/stealapencil.