By capturing humanity at its vilest and the survival mechanism at its sharpest, the Holocaust documentary is a mini-genre that will probably never run dry of extraordinary stories. “Steal a Pencil for Me,” director Michele Ohayon’s account of a love affair that blossomed in the Nazi camps, is the latest worthy example of this species.
Both a real-life romantic drama and a Jewish-condition mosaic, the film combines interviews, archival footage, photos and letters to present Jaap (Jack) Polak and Ina Soep, a Jewish couple who met at a birthday party in Nazi-occupied Holland in 1943. Jack was an unhappily married accountant, and Ina was a diamond-industry child who deemed accountants dull. They clicked.
Following their deportation, the two found themselves — along with Jack’s wife, Manja — in the same concentration camp, Westerbork. (Later, they went to Bergen-Belsen.) Amid horrible conditions, and with Manja forbidding them from meeting, Jack and Ina sustained their romance via smuggled love letters.
After the war, Jack divorced Manja and married Ina. Sixty years later (he’s in his 90s; she’s a decade younger), and living in the United States, they remain a vital and devoted couple.
Oddly, the old love letters, which receive lots of screen time, are the least effective element. Ohayon’s presentation of them in voice-over can’t remotely convey the passion and tension that Ina and Jack describe in interviews.
Also weak is the portrayal of Manja, who comes off one-dimensionally as a petty, jealous woman. We get little sense of who she was and how she dealt with the Jack-Ina affair.
But overall, Ohayon, whose credits include “Cowboy del Amor,” delivers a wealth of interesting tidbits and vivid snapshots and has assembled them not only into a chronicle of a fascinating love story but into an engrossing picture of wartime Jewish life and long-term Jewish survival.
Big-picture realities mix with small-picture nuggets. Jack recalls that, after his Holocaust experience, he found it difficult to recite a prayer that proclaimed God as great.
The title, which is also that of a book by the couple, comes from a letter in which Jack complains about his stubby writing implement and asks Ina, who has access to office supplies, for a new one.
Steal a Pencil for Me ***
Starring Jaap (Jack) Polak, Ina Soep
Directed by Michele Ohayon, based on a book by Jaap Polak and Ina Soep
Running time: 1 hour, 34 minutes