In 2001, Dr. Arnoud-Jan Bijsterveld, a professor at Tilburg University in the southern Netherlands decided to renovate his house, and being a historian by profession, began to look into the history of its previous owners. To his amazement the house had previously belonged to the Polak family, a Jewish Dutch family in Tilburg that was in the leather business. Last Thursday, March 6, 2014 a symposium was held in the International School for Holocaust Studies of Yad Vashem focusing on Jewish life during the Holocaust through an exploration of Dutch film. The lectures were part of an ongoing enrichment for staff of the Department of Teacher Training who instruct Israeli educators how to teach about the Holocaust. Following an introduction to the day’s events by Sarit Hoch-Markovitz, Director of Teacher Training at the International School of Yad Vashem, a lecture was given by Dr. Bijsterveld, who following his incredible personal discovery, made a documentary about the Jewish Dutch Polak family who had built and lived in his house.
Inspired by the story, Bijsterveld decided to create a documentary film, Here Was Bertram about Bertram Polak, who grew up in the house and was the sole member of his immediate family that was murdered during the Holocaust. As the only boy in a family of four children Bertram Polak enlisted, eventually becoming an officer in the Dutch army. When the Nazis invaded the Netherlands on May 10, 1940 Bertram was called up to fight the Germans before the Dutch surrendered four days later. During the second day of fighting on May 11, Bertram’s family and his uncle’s family fled to Amsterdam where they escaped 3 days later to England, with both families eventually immigrating to the United States. Shortly after returning home to Tilburg to resume working in his father’s business, as the Nazi occupation of the Netherlands solidified the business was later taken over by a German administrator who fired Bertram for being a Jew. Bertram planned to flee the Netherlands with help from his father, first applying for a visa to Cuba and then planning to escape to England by boat.
Bertram and the rest of those who sought refuge in England were betrayed, arrested and Bertram was sent to Scheveningen prison. From there he was taken to Amersfoort concentration camp before being sent to Auschwitz-Birkenau and was murdered on August 17, 1942. During his lecture, Bijsterveld explained that Bertram’s father, who had tried to help his son escape the Nazi occupied Netherlands before his arrest, was living in the United States by November, 1942 and upon hearing of the fate of the Jews in the camp in which his son was incarcerated in, suffered from a heart attack and died. In addition to the staff of the Department of Teacher Training, Bertram’s cousin, Edith was also in attendance during the day symposium and even recounted some of her family history while listening attentively to Bijsterveld’s lecture. Following his search into the life and death of Bertram, Bijsterveld also coordinated the installation of Stolpersteine, German for ‘stumbling stone’, for Bertram which serves as a memorial on the pavement right outside the Polak family home.
The film symposium concluded with a lecture given by Eyal Boers, a documentary filmmaker and Head of the Film & Television Track in the Communication Department at Ariel University, about the perception of the Jew in Dutch cinema. Boers also showed a part of the documentary film he directed, Classmates of Anne Frank as well as short clips of other films from the Netherlands to show how the Shoah is portrayed in Dutch cinema.
Dr. Bijsterveld's documentary film Here Was Bertram (with English subtitles) can be viewed on youtube.