Despite being dwarfed by the podium, Holocaust survivor Jack Polak’s strong words carried themselves forcefully out and over the standing room only audience.
On Friday, April 22, a day before the 60th anniversary of his own liberation from a Dutch prison camp, Polak came to Quinnipiac University to speak in the Mancheski Seminar Room on the trials and tribulations he went through during the Holocaust in World War II.
“Most people only have one life. I had three: My life in Holland, my life in the camp and my life after I was freed,” Polak said.
Born in Amsterdam in 1912, Polak was a part of the youth movement there, and enjoyed the lifestyle of a free and happy man, where “everyone was treated the same.” In May of 1940, as the war and Third Reich were building, Polak began to experience changes in his daily life.
He had to wear the Jewish star which caused him to be looked at differently.
His life was turned upside-down in 1942, when he was one of 400 people to be led in a demonstration march through Amsterdam.
“I was terrified that night, but I realized that if I could get through [that] night, I could conquer other challenges,” Polak said.
In 1943 Polak was moved to Westerbork, a Dutch work camp, where he was the principal of the school.
“It was a make-believe camp. We had a school, a hospital, and a playground. But everyday, at 6 a.m., sharp, cattle cars would bring children in and take children out, to places unknown to the rest of us,” Polak said.
Polak remained at Westerbork until July 1943, when he was then moved to Bergenbelsen, a concentration camp.
It was here that he met his future wife Ina. They wrote each other secret notes, which were later put together into a book called “Steal a Pencil For Me”, as well as a movie with the same name.
“Survival in the camps [was] 97 percent luck and three percent will power. I had a girl and she had a boy. The fact that we knew we had someone special helped us survive,” Polak said.
Polak was fortunate to get a job in the camp’s kitchen, working from 3 a.m., until 8 p.m.
“It was a long shift, but at least I got something to eat,” Polak said.
For 14 months, Polak lived on the brink of starvation, little sleep, torturous cattle cars and a constant fear of not knowing of whether he would be alive the next day.
On April 23, 1945, Russia invaded Germany and liberated several camps, including Bergenbelsen.
“I left the camp and I developed spotted typhus. For the next two days I was in a coma. When I came out, I weighed 75 pounds. I learned that my parents and sister had died in the camps. I came out and I was alive. I don’t know how or why I did and they didn’t,” Polak said.
In 1951, Polak took his wife to the United States to continue his new life as a free man.
“After that second life I had, I realized that I must earn the [new] life I [had] been given,” Polak said.
Polak uses that thought to do many things in regards to remembering and honoring the victims of the Holocaust. He is a chairman of the Anne Frank Center USA in New York, a member of the New York State Holocaust Committee and he was knighted in Holland in 1992 for his hard work.
Polak says he speaks about the Holocaust in hopes for “a better world.”
We can never truly understand the reasons for the Holocaust 11 million people were killed by Hitler, 6 million were Jewish and 1.5 million were children. The movies that have come out, such as “Life is Beautiful,”are good, but they barely touch on the horrors of the Holocaust. We cannot let something like this happen again, nor can we forget that this happened. Memory is more than information and words and when I die I want you to be able to say “I was there when Jack Polak, a Holocaust survivor spoke at Quinnipiac,” just as I was there when the Holocaust occurred, Polak said.
Polak was on hand after his speech to sign copies of his book. When audience member Joanna Koclowski stood up to say she had been a prisoner of Auschwitz, a solemn silence was held in respect for her. The event was sponsored by the Muticultural Events group.