Thelma Esther Polak, the Saba-born Jewish nurse who was murdered at concentration camp Sobibor in 1943, was honored posthumously on Sunday, December 19 with the unveiling of a plaque in her commemoration at the World War II memorial site in The Bottom.
Organized by Judith Meijer, in daily life Director of Saba Cares, the foundation that runs the A.M. Edwards Medical Center, and former Director of the Jewish Social Work foundation in Amsterdam, a small group of people gathered at the war memorial on the birthday of Nurse Thelma, exactly 101 years after she was born on Saba on December 19, 1920 as the daughter of Maurice Polak, a doctor from Suriname who came to Saba to work.
With the flags flying at half mast, Meijer welcomed the persons in attendance. “Before I moved to Saba, almost a year ago, I read about Thelma Polak’s life on Jewish Holocaust memorial websites, such as Yad Vashem. After moving to Saba, I discovered that there was nothing on Saba in her remembrance. This didn’t feel right, not only because she was born on Saba to Jewish parents, but also because she was very proud to be a Saban girl. So, it felt like my duty to tell her story here on Saba, which I did on several occasions. Today it feels like we are bringing her back home with this ceremony and placing the memorial,” said Meijer, who first brought up Thelma’s story during the Nurse’s Week church service in May this year.
Island Governor Jonathan Johnson recounted some of the interesting, heroic facts about Thelma Polak. Thelma lost her mother Estelle Arrias when she was barely two years old. In the early 30’ies, Thelma, her brother Semuel Jacques and her father moved to Amsterdam. Thelma proudly told her schoolmates that she was born on Saba and that one day she wanted to work on Saba as a doctor.
As a Jew, Thelma was not allowed to study medicine during the war, so she volunteered at the Apeldoornsche Bos, a hospital for mentally and physically challenged people near Apeldoorn, where she worked as as a student-nurse.
When the Germans raided the institution in January 1943 and removed all 1,300 patients to deport them afterwards, Thelma volunteered to accompany the patients. Among her favorite patients was 77-year-old Abigael Santcroos from Curaçao whom Thelma was said to quickly dress in warm clothes and for whom she prepared a small suitcase. At the Dutch camp Westerbork, Thelma married her love, Izak Cohen, who also worked as a nurse at Apeldoornsche Bos. A month after her marriage, Thelma was deported to Sobibor where she was gassed on March 5, 1943, at the age of 22. Thelma was only was the only Holocaust victim who was born on Saba. Her name is stated on the Jewish Monument in Amsterdam.
Island Governor Johnson said it was important to tell Thelma’s story and the history of WWII not only for the general public, but also in schools. Johnson and Meijer unveiled the plaque in Thelma’s honor after Anya Danilova of the Jewish Student Association of the Saba University School of Medicine addressed the small gathering.
“Though her life was short, Thelma Polak gave her life to her work as a nurse to the patients in her care at the Apeldoorn Jewish Home for the disabled. Her service, determination and courage are a light that shines in darkness. The Nazis sought to minimize and dehumanize; reducing people to numbers based in a moral and scientific depravity, whereas Thelma’s work was to spread light and see a patient as worthy of care because they were simply human,” said Danilova.
“Whether we are nurses, physicians, governors, teachers, office workers or fishermen, we all have special qualities to give to others and the world; remembering that no one is insignificant. In this way, we rob the Nazis of their goals. Today, we remember and honor Thelma on her birthday and all the countless victims. Through our endeavors, we make their lives and our own a blessing. Shalom,” said Danilova.
The small, wooden plaque for Thelma Polak was placed next to the larger plaque on the war monument with the names of 129 persons of the Netherlands Antilles, including 11 Sabans, who perished during the 1940-1945 war. Every year, on May 4, Saba observes Memorial Day at this monument.