Jaap (Jack) Polak

31 December 1912, Amsterdam
08 March 2010

"Raised in zionist spirit"

Spoken language: Dutch

Jaap Polak was born in Amsterdam. He cherishes recollections of his loving parents. His father was very much involved in the Zionist movement in the Netherlands, and the Polak children were raised in a Zionist spirit. Jaap didn't go into hiding, although he had the opportunity to do so. He felt that as a strong young man he would be able to get through the work camps.

He was married when the war broke out, but in Westerbork he met his current wife, Ina, whom he married after the war. Together they published the book "Steal a pencil for me" about the love letters they wrote each other in Westerbork and Bergen-Belsen. Almost all of Jaap's relatives from father's side perished, and not more than three uncles and aunts from mother's side survived the Second World War. Jaap's parents were killed in Sobibor, his eldest sister perished in Bergen-Belsen. Jaap gives lectures on the Shoah for young audiences.

In this interview is talked about:

  • Jewish life

    Which Jewish customs and traditions are referred to by the interviewees? Did they observe Jewish holidays before the Second World War? What role does their Jewishness play now? This section deals with Jewish life in the Netherlands and Poland.

    Jaap Polak attended Jewish Herman Elte elementary school in Amsterdam and was happy there as a child; he cherishes the recollections. He often visited camps of the "Joodse Jeugdfederatie" (Jewish Youth Federation) and was raised a Zionist. He describes his early childhood as happy, in a closed, Jewish world: virtually all his friends were Jewish. This changed when he went to a non-Jewish secondary school ("Eerste Openbare Handelsschool", or First Public Trade School). At one of the Jewish youth camps he met Manja, a Orthodox girl from Russia, they fell in love and married in 1939.

  • Life before the war

    In this section interviewees recollect their lives before the Second World War. The large majority of them grew up in Jewish Amsterdam. They tell about their childhood, recalling more or less beautiful aspects of family life...

    Jaap Polak had a beautiful Jewish childhood. His father was an accountant and very much involved in the Dutch Zionist movement, his mother was a needlework teacher. Although the family were hard up - Jaap wore his clothes after Jacques Sijper - he didn't feel his parents were poor. Jaap and his three younger sisters, Jule, Betty, and Liesje were all members of the "Joodse Jeugdfederatie" as well as of the religious Zionist Mizrachi movement. Jaap attended Jewish Herman Elteschool and had Jewish friends. When he went to the "Eerste Openbare Handelsschool", or First Public Trade School later, he came into contact with non-Jews for the first time. Jaap studied accountancy.

  • Persecution

    When the Nazis occupied the Netherlands persecution of Jews began: registration, segregation, robbery, and deportation. Many people have recollections of the yellow Star of David badge and the round-ups.

    Jaap Polak (1912) realized that the threat is much larger than he had always thought only at the moment he was forced to begin wearing the Star of David. Still he refused to go into hiding, even when his sister had found a hiding address for him and his wife Manja. He sent her away with the remark that, being a healthy man, he would certainly survive the camps. Jaap regards the period before he, in July 1943, was rounded up as worse than his period in the camps, because of the uncertainty, of not knowing whether you would be rounded up or taken out of your house at night.

  • Life during the war

    Daily life was becoming more and more difficult for Jews during the German occupation. Persecution gradually became more intrusive and more gruesome. People tried to carry on with their everyday lives as long as they could.

    When the war began, the Polak family did not intend to escape. When the Queen departed, Jaap began to think things over, but without jumping to conclusions. He worked as an accountant in a ready-made clothing store when a Verwalter was appointed there; this man gave him a tram license, so that Jaap could go on traveling by public transport. Jaap remembers an emotional Kol Nidrei of his father's at the evening of Yom Kippur, 1942, just before he was taken away.

  • Expectations

    Jews in the Netherlands must have sensed that life under German occupation was going to be hard and unpleasant for them. But what did they expect, what exactly did they think?

    Although involved in helping refugees from Germany through a Zionist
    organization, Jaap Polak believed firmly that the Netherlands would stay
    out of the war. When war broke out, it came as a huge surprise for him. In July 1943 Jaap Polak and his parents stayed together in Westerbork camp for a few days. When his parents were put on transport, Jaap accompanied them to the train. Convinced that they left for a labour camp, he gave his father his own new shoes. This was the last time he saw them. The transport left for Sobibor, where they would be murdered. Jaap Polak stayed in Bergen-Belsen from the beginning of 1944. By the end of that year Jews from Auschwitz arrived in Bergen-Belsen, bringing stories about the horrors happening in Auschwitz with them. Jaap also heard these stories, but still couldn't really believe them, even after his own experiences. "They tell this only in order to frighten us."

  • Camps & ghettos

    There were three transit camps and one SS concentration camp in the Netherlands during the German occupation. Interviewees recollect their experiences in Westerbork and Vught. Camp life in Germany and Poland is also discussed.

    Jaap Polak and his wife Manja were rounded up in July 1943. In Westerbork they met his parents, who were then, a few days later, deported to Sobibor. Jaap also met Ina, who was ten years younger. In Westerbork Jaap was head of school. He had a typewriter at his disposal and typed love letters to Ina. Jaap was forwarded to Bergen-Belsen in February 1944. In the beginning he was a member of the "open air team" and cut trees. Later he worked in the kitchen, from 3 am till 8 pm. He managed to smuggle out sugar and bring small bags to both Ina, with whom he was in love, and his wife Manja. Jaap and Ina wrote each other letter in secret. Jaap remembers the story of a German guard who gave extra food to a number of Jewish boys during the Yom Kippur fasting of 1944. He also remembers the permanent fear that was omnipresent in the camp.

  • Liberation

    Many interviewees are ambiguous about the liberation. They survived the war, but at what cost? Relatives and loved ones had been killed. Feelings of gratitude were mixed with feelings of mourning and loss.

    Jaap's elder sister Jule died in the train that left from Bergen-Belsen at the end of the war and, loaded with Jews, rode aimlessly to and fro through half-liberated Germany. When Julie fell ill, she asked Jaap for some bread, but he refused. She died the day he was liberated by the Russians in Treubitz.

  • Demjanjuk trial

    Next of kin to people killed in Sobibor, and survivors of the revolt played a major role as co-plaintiffs during the Demjanjuk trial.

    Jaap Polak's parents were murdered in Sobibor. Jaap was a co-plaintiff in the Demjanjuk trial, because this was the only thing he could do for his parents; he did it for their memory.

  • 2,000 testimonials

    The Jewish Historical Museum made two thousand interviews from the archive of the USC Shoah Foundation Institute accessible to the public.

    An interview with Jaap Polak (Jack Polak) lasting 2.02 hours, labeled 1090, can be watched in the Jewish Historical Museum in Amsterdam. JHM chose from the archive 2000 interviews that had a relation with the Netherlands. You can watch the interviews in the "Hollandsche Schouwburg" and in the museum itself.