The Journal News Preview of “Steal a Pencil For Me”

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Opera shares Eastchester couple’s romance in concentration camp

4/26/13
by Julie Moran Alterio

Whether it’s “Aida” or “The Hunger Games,” a love triangle makes for enduring drama.

The real-life tale of an Eastchester couple caught in a love triangle while struggling to survive inside Nazi concentration camps is the inspiration for a new opera with music by a Yonkers composer.

“Steal a Pencil for Me” is the third telling of the story of Jack and Ina Polak, married for 67 years.

“We had first a book, then the movie documentary. When he came with the opera, my reaction was, ‘And what then? The musical?'” Ina Polak said with a laugh directed at Gerald Cohen, cantor at Shaarei Tikvah in Scarsdale and a friend of the couple’s for 25 years.

Cohen, whose music is paired with a libretto by New York City writer Deborah Brevoort, came to the Polaks with his idea three years ago.

“They both encouraged me to write it quickly,” he said, noting that Jack is 100 and Ina is 90.

The chance to tell a true story with as many twists as the most enthralling fictional opera appealed to Cohen, who composed two other operas with biblical themes.

“The Holocaust was an incredible, horrible huge historical event, but at the same time there were people who were able to live through it and fully embrace their humanity and love for each other,” Cohen said.

The story opens in Nazi-occupied Amsterdam when Jack (also known as Jaap) Polak, a 30-year-old struggling accountant in a rocky marriage, falls in love at first sight with Ina Soep, 10 years younger and from a well-off family. That encounter at a birthday party in the spring of 1943 might have been it for the couple but for being assigned the same barracks at the Westerbork transit camp later that year.

Polak had agreed to stay married to his wife, Manja, during the war to improve their chances of survival. That didn’t stop him from courting Soep through love notes they continued to exchange, even when both were sent to the harsher Bergen-Belsen camp in Germany the following year.

In one of the missives, Polak begs Soep to “steal a pencil for me,” inspiring the title of their book of collected letters, translated by their daughter Margrit and published in 2000.

The letters were a way for the couple to picture a life beyond the camp, where an “ordinary breakfast” with real coffee, buttered toast and juice would be normal. That wish is the subject of one of the arias in the new opera.

“We were trying to figure out how to show Ina and Jaap’s hopes for the future, and we found this letter where Jaap talks about ‘I imagine us in the future having an ordinary breakfast together.’ The librettist turned it into this beautiful duet,” Cohen said.

Singer Robert Balonek, who plays Jack, said preparing for the role has been emotional.

“It took me a couple of times to read through it to sing along because it was just so moving,” he said. “It’s rare that an opera singer gets to meet and interact with someone who they are playing.”

Ilana Davidson, who plays Ina, said the story shows that something beautiful can bloom amid horror.

“It’s an honor, but it’s also a gift to be able to put yourself in a situation through music that’s happened so recently and that’s so important never to forget,” she said.

After liberation, the Polaks found each other in 1945 in Amsterdam. Jack divorced Manja, who died in 2005, and Soep learned that her boyfriend from before deportation had been killed. The couple were married in January 1946 and moved to the United States in 1951. They have three children, five grandchildren and six great-grandchildren.

In his new home country, Jack Polak helped found the Anne Frank Center USA, where he is chairman emeritus. He was knighted by Queen Beatrix of the Netherlands in 1992 to honor him for his work telling the story of the Holocaust.

That impulse to share his story is what prompted him to agree to the opera.

“When the cantor came to me for the opera, I said no,” Jack Polak recalled. “Then I said, ‘Really, this is such a unique thing to find two people who survived under the most unbelievable circumstances,’ and to make an opera of it, I accepted it.”

What makes such stories of the Holocaust so powerful is their foundation in true events, said Ela Weissberger, an 82-year-old survivor from Tappan whose own childhood as a star of the opera “Brundibar” while captive at Theresienstadt camp has been widely chronicled.

“It has to be something that is true, even in music,” Weissberger said.

Millie Jasper, executive director of the Holocaust and Human Rights Education Center in White Plains, said the opera shares a “story of survival.”

“I had the pleasure of listening to a few of the arias at a Holocaust commemoration a few weeks ago,” she said. “I think people will be drawn to it.”

Cohen, mindful that not everyone is an opera fan — and here Ina Polak raises her hand with a smile — said his work is accessible to general audiences.

The two-hour production is semi-staged with nine soloists and a chorus of eight singers backed by a four-piece instrumental ensemble. The costumes are simple with Jews represented by yellow stars and Nazis wearing arm bands.

“This is a much more intimate venue than, say, the Metropolitan Opera, so they’ll be up close to the singers and get the dramatic impact,” Cohen said, adding: “It’s in English, so they’ll be able to understand the words.”

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