When most of us hear the term “love story”, we think romance, tales of engagements, weddings, honeymoons. Our visions of a romantic getaway include country Inns, or Caribbean islands. Our views of love and romance would never include war and a romantic getaway would never be to a concentration camp. Yet, for one unique Westchester couple, that is the very place and time their love began.
Last year, a couple came into my office for a routine business matter. They were an engaging pair…elderly, yet spry, sharp and witty. We had a few moments to chat while waiting for some paperwork, and somehow we got on the topic of World War II and the Holocaust. I mentioned to them that I had seen an interesting documentary the night before on PBS about a vacation colony in the Catskill Mountains made up of Holocaust survivors. Jaap Polak, the husband, said to me “Oh, we have a movie of our own about the Holocaust”. I inquired as to whether or not it was related to the documentary I had seen, and his wife, Ina Soep said “no, our story is a love story”. Jaap, or Jack as he is more commonly known, pulled a book out of his case and gave it to me. That night, after reflecting on my meeting, I began reading Steal a Pencil for Me, a non-fictional novel which chronicles the love affair of Jaap Polak and Ina Soep through the publication of love letters written by both of them to each other during their encampment in Bergen-Belsen and Westerbork.
Both Jaap and Ina (Caterina) grew up in Holland – Jaap of a poorer class, and Ina the daughter of a diamond manufacturer. Both grew up in observant Orthodox Jewish families, both leading quite normal lives. Jaap became an accountant, and married his first wife, Manja in 1939. Life continued on, but Jaap’s marriage was not a happy one. Ina lived a good life with her family, and had her own sweetheart, Rudi. But fate has a way of intervening in life, and at a party in 1943, Jaap and Ina had a chance meeting. It was Ina’s observation that Jaap and Manja did not belong together as a couple. After that, she put them out of her mind. But for Jaap…that chance meeting was enough to make him realize that Ina was the woman he was meant to be with. By this time, the Germans had occupied Holland for a few years, and were beginning to deport Jews to the concentration camps. In late 1943, both Jaap and Ina found themselves being sent off from their homes and their lives as they both had known them. Though desiring a divorce, Jaap made a commitment to stay with his wife in order to ensure her safety in the camps.
As life would have it, both Jaap and Ina were sent to the deportation camp, Westerbork, which was a holding camp of sorts, before one would be sent to a concentration camp. While Jaap knew that his profession as an accountant afforded him a certain status at the camps, he also knew that Ina’s social status and that of her family would afford her a certain protection as well. He asked that he and Manja be transferred to Ina’s barrack. He found a way to re-introduce himself to her…and thus began their great romance. Ina was 10 years younger than Jaap, and the fact that he had a wife made things all that more difficult. However, little by little, letter by letter, Jaap won her over. Jaap’s wife was cognizant of his discontent with the marriage, and aware of the growing love between Ina and her husband. At times, she gave them deference, and at times she forbade them from seeing each other. It was at those times that the letters became the only form of communication between the pair – so in love with each other. Their written correspondence, sometimes done with mere pencil stubs, sustained them through hunger, anger, tragedy, despair and loss.
The ravages of the camp life and the death of so many were often more than one person could take, but their love sustained them. Jaap’s letters were a lifeblood for Ina, his love bolstering her. Then, finally…in 1945, they were both liberated. Jaap was suffering from typhus, weighing only 80 pounds. When he was finally reunited with Ina, they realized they were both liberated on so many levels, and their love was now free to not only survive, but thrive. The couple was married in a small ceremony in one of the only functioning Synagogues in Amsterdam, on Tuesday, January 29, 1946.
Jaap and Ina proudly ushered two sons, Frederick and Anthony, into the world. They brought their family to the United States in 1951, finally settling in Eastchester, and in 1955 their daughter Margrit was born. They have five grandchildren who carry on the name and legacy of their grandparents.
I was struck by so many things after my meeting with Jaap and Ina. I feel there are many lessons to be learned from this couple. After so many years, they are still completely in love. They are living proof that love can indeed conquer anything…that it is the most important thing we can have in our lives, and that it feeds the very soul of us. They are living proof that romance can survive in the most dark and deadly of circumstances. They are an example of the vows that married couples take every day…in sickness and health, in good times and bad. That day, when they sat in my office, I asked them what their secret was. Ina told me that love is about tolerance and compromise. “You have to be good friends” she said. Advice we can all live by…and love by.
This Westchester local love story was brought to you by The Inn at Bowman’s Hill, an exclusive Bucks County Bed and Breakfast Inn located just 2 miles south of the town of New Hope, PA, across the scenic Delaware River from Lambertville, NJ. This beautiful New Hope Bed & Breakfast Inn, perhaps more akin to a boutique hotel, is the only 4-Diamond lodging in all of Bucks County and enjoys a serene location alongside the Bowman’s Hill Wildflower Preserve, a 100-acre Bucks County nature preserve surrounded by mature woodland. The Inn at Bowman’s Hill provides the perfect setting to celebrate engagements, anniversaries, honeymoons, intimate weddings, commitment ceremonies, birthdays, girls’ weekends, and babymoons all year long. Check out their last minute deals and weekday specials.
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