Survivor details Holocaust experiences

BY JENNIFER MISTHAL
Daily Staff Reporter
Published March 18, 2002

During Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur of 1945, Jaap Polak attended services at the orthodox synagogue of his childhood in Holland. Surrounded by unfamiliar faces, Polak said he felt uncomfortable, and stood in the back of the temple because "praying is very difficult for Holocaust survivors." But when he was asked to move to the front of the temple, he said he was "hit with the horror of the Holocaust."

In a speech at Hillel Friday evening, Polak said his experiences have made him a "happy Holocaust survivor." One year after Polack's marriage to his first wife, the Germans invaded and conquered Holland in five days - an attack which he said lead to the death of 79 percent of Holland's Jewish population. On April 9, 1940, Polak rode a cattle car to Westerbrok, the Dutch concentration camp considered "make-believe."

"Very few people know about the Dutch camp," Polak said. He considers himself privileged, being sent to Westerbrok and Bergen-Belsen.

"(Westerbrok) had a hospital, a school ... almost everything. It was a very normal life," Polak said. "I was lucky to be sent to a concentration camp and not a death camp. ... Ninety percent were immediately killed at extermination camp."

Polak said he thinks of himself as a unique survivor because he had both a wife and girlfriend in the camps. Polak met a girl before he was sent to Westerbrok. Knowing his first marriage would end shortly after the war, Polak courted his second wife, Ina, through letters.

Polak said he "had a relationship done in letters because (he) couldn't see her." There were times Polak wrote on toilet paper when he had nothing else. The Dutch love letters between the Polaks were translated into English with the help of their daughter and are now published in a book, "Steal a Pencil for Me."

"How many diaries of the camps are there?" he asked the audience.

Polack said when he questioned how many diaries of Holocaust survivors' experiences were in existence, he was forced to publish the book.

Polak said he and other prisoners had no knowledge about the Nazis' extermination camps.

Polak currently tours the country recounting his experiences to different audiences. He feels it is "unbelievably difficult to speak about the Holocaust," but says it offers important lessons.

"In 1975, no one talked about the Holocaust," Polak said. "Now, every college and university offers courses. We've come a long way in teaching the Holocaust."

"There can never be too much. The real story cannot be told," he said. "The Holocaust is so unbelievable it is almost impossible," Polak said. "Surviving was 97 percent luck and 3 percent willpower." He said he is reminded of his experience everyday. But unlike other survivors, Polak has not had "hat many nightmares."

"I am a fortunate man, hopes can come true," Polak said. A film version of the Polaks' story will be released next year.

Polak's lecture was a part of the Conference on the Holocaust that concludes tomorrow night.

Conference co-chair, Jacqueline Wulwick said "(Survivors) are getting older and in a few years there won't be any left. ... It's our chance to hear the story firsthand."