"Steal a Pencil for Me" tells the extraordinary story of Jack and Ina, lovers who must keep their affair a secret from his wife when all three find themselves in the same improbable setting for extramarital romance: a Nazi concentration camp.
The documentary, by Academy-award nominated director MichGele Ohayon, is based on the letters of Jack and Ina Polack, Holocaust survivors who celebrated their 60th wedding anniversary last year and have accompanied Ohayon to screenings around the country, often with their children and grandchildren.
The film opens Friday in New York City and Los Angeles.
The story is both unbelievable and painfully real, and the couple's narrations bring an awe-inspiring sense of hope and an even more unexpected humor. Within the first few minutes of the film, Jack introduces himself: "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."
Jack and his mistress met in Nazi-occupied Amsterdam in 1943, only a month before he and his wife Manja were deported to Westerbork, a transit camp in eastern Holland where Nazis held Jews and others considered to be enemies of the regime before sending them to prison camps.
Two months later, Ina is placed, to Manja's dismay, in the same barracks. All three are then sent to Bergen-Belsen, the concentration camp in northwest Germany where Anne Frank died of typhus in 1945.
Jack and Ina's letters, which tell as much of hunger, disease and fear as of love and jealousy, are read in the film over photo montages from the camps, which Ohayon pulled together for the film during years of research in archives in Europe and Israel.
Ohayon, born in Casablanca and raised in Israel, said she grew up so inundated with stories about the Nazi genocide that she experienced what she calls "Holocaust fatigue."
"In Israel, it was everywhere. It's in your face, it's in the curriculum, it's in the stories of your parents and your teachers," said Ohayon in a telephone interview. "It pushed me to resist touching the subject in any way."
After moving to Los Angeles in 1987, she focused instead on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and on offbeat topics like "Cowboy del Amor," the amusing tale of a Texan matchmaker who connects Mexican brides with American bachelors. Her 1997 documentary about inner-city teenagers in South Central L.A, "Colors Straight Up," was nominated for an Academy Award.
Ohayon came upon the letters of Jack and Ina through their daughter Margrit, a close friend of Ohayon's, who found the letters in an attic and translated them from Dutch with the help of both parents. The letters were published in a book by the Anne Frank Center in 2000.
"They snapped me out of my fatigue. Thinking of these people waking up every morning in the camps and in spite of everything horrible that's going on around them, saying, maybe one day we'll survive and we'll have a beautiful house - it's truly inspiring."