An improbable love story is the theme of Steal a Pencil For Me, one of the movies scheduled to be shown at this year’s Toronto Jewish Film Festival, which runs from May 3-11.
Michele Onayon’s unusual, touching documentary takes place against the backdrop of the Holocaust in Holland.
In 1943, three years after Holland was occupied by the German army, a married Jewish accountant named Jaap (Jack) Polak met Ina Soep, a young, eligible woman 10 years his junior. Polak, unhappily married, was smitten, while Ina was less than impressed.
Like many Dutch Jews, Polak and his wife, Manja, were transported to Westerbork, a concentration camp in northeastern Holland that had originally been built for Jewish refugees fleeing fascist oppression. Shortly afterward, Ina arrived in Westerbork, and Polak began to woo her. “He won my heart by sheer persistence,” says Ina.
When Manja discovered that they were having an affair, she forbade her husband from seeing Ina. So the pair wrote love letters to each other. “I have the feeling that we completely understand each other,” Polak wrote in a letter. These letters, some of which were preserved, form the heart of Steal a Pencil For Me.
The film, which switches back and forth between the past and the present, is a testament to the power of romance and the ties that bind. Even after Polak and Ina were temporarily separated, they never stopped thinking of and yearning for each other. “They lived on their love,” says Polak’s sister, a resident of Israel today. Having been liberated from Bergen-Belsen, Polak divorced Manja and married Ina. “That was the beginning of my life,” he says with some ardour. And this film fleshes out their enduring love match.
In Dutch, English and Hebrew. May 5, noon, Al Green Theatre and May 6, 1 p.m., Sheppard Grande.
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Skate to Survive
This documentary, partially set in wartime Holland as well, is about the mother-daughter figure skating dynasty of Ellen and Petra Burka, both of whom were champions.
Directed by Astra Burka, it opens in Holland and ends in Canada, their adopted homeland. Ellen, the focus of Skate to Survive, was born in 1921 in Amsterdam and was brought up in an assimilated household where Christmas and Easter were celebrated. Only by chance did she discover that her parents, originally from Germany, were Jewish.
Burka’s documentary charts Ellen’s development as a first-rate figure skater, the anti-Semitic restrictions that marginalized Dutch Jews after Germany’s invasion, the deportation of her 83-year-old grandmother, Ellen’s confinement in Westerbork and Theresienstadt, the kitchen duties that made life a little easier for her, Ellen’s ascent in her chosen sport, and her immigration to Canada in the wake of World War II.
What may strike some viewers as jarring is that Ellen and her husband raised their two daughters in the Anglican church. They did so because Toronto was pervasively anti-Semitic in the 1950s and figure-skating clubs seemed allergic to Jewish instructors. After Ellen’s marriage broke up, she became a full-time figure-skating coach, shepherding her daughter and another star pupil, Toller Cranston, to Canadian and world titles in the 1960s. Strangely enough, Petra never makes an appearance in the film.
May 6, 5 p.m., Al Green Theatre
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Arthur Szyk – Illuminator
This documentary by Pietr Zarebski is a serious portrait of an outstanding illustrator. Szyk, a Polish Jew from Lodz, was simply the greatest 20th-century illuminator working in the style of 16th-century miniaturist painters. Today, 57 years after his untimely passing, he is best remembered for his Passover haggadah, the Statute of Kalisz (which granted Jews in Poland civil and religious privileges), anti-Nazi illustrations, drawings of Israel’s struggle for statehood and the U.S. Declaration of Independence.
A child prodigy, Szyk was influenced by Middle Eastern art. A Polish patriot who fought for Poland’s freedom and lived in the United States during Germany’s occupation of Poland, he produced the Statute of Kalisz to promote tolerance. But Zarebski says not a word about Szyk’s reaction to the mounting tide of anti-Semitism in prewar Poland.
May 6, 6 p.m., Bloor Cinema; May 8, 1 p.m, Sheppard Grande.
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Ernst Lubitsch in Berlin
Ernst Lubitsch, the renowned Hollywood director known for his sophisticated comedies, (Ninotchka and The Shop Around the Corner, to name but two), started his career in his birthplace, Germany. Robert Fischer’s intriguing film, Ernst Lubitsch in Berlin, rounds out his German period, when he was an actor and a comedian in Paul Davidson’s silent films and Max Reinhardt’s Deutsche Theatre.
Although he was thoroughly secular, Lubitsch, the son of a Lithuanian immigrant tailor, infused his acting with a Jewish sensibility. By the time he arrived in Hollywood in 1922, Lubitsch was a formidable figure, ready for stardom in the United States.
May 5, 2 p.m., Al Green Theatre.
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Nichols and May: Take Two
At the height of their powers in the late 1950s and early 1960s, Mike Nichols and Elaine May were a compelling comedy team whose cutting satire presaged social change in America. Nichols and May:Take Two, by Phillip Schopper, examines their ascendancy as comedians through hilarious skits and interviews with a variety of observers, including their manager. The film, unfortunately, omits vital biographical data about them.
May 4, 3:30 p.m., Al Green Theatre
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Operation Mural – Casablanca 1961
This interesting film by Yehuda Kaveh hinges on a clandestine plot hatched by Israel to smuggle 530 Jewish children out of Morocco under the nose of the Moroccan government. It revolves around David Littman, a British Jew who volunteered his services for the operation. Unknown to him and his wife, they were actually working under cover for the Mossad. A Moroccan official threatened to expose them as Zionist spies, but he was overruled.
May 6, 3:30 p.m., Bloor Cinema
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This feature is taken from a popular Israeli sitcom, written by Sayed Kashua, about an obsessive Israeli Arab who will do virtually anything to assimilate. The episodes, turning on a shady garage mechanic, a Passover seder and a tense encounter between a Jewish suitor and an Arab woman, are satirical and zero in on problems that bedevil Israel’s sometimes uneasy relationship with its large Arab minority.
May 7, 7:30 p.m., Al Green Theatre.
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Between Two Notes
This meditative film by Amit Breuer, documents how Jews and Arabs in the Middle East have influenced their respective musical traditions. Flitting from Israel and Egypt to Syria and Lebanon, Between Two Notes unreels through grainy file footage, rousing concerts and thoughtful interviews.
May 6, noon, Al Green Theatre.
For tickets and other information, visit www.tjff.com.