MONTREAL — As the son of Dutch Holocaust survivors, Michael Polak considers his appointment as honorary consul of the Netherlands in Montreal especially significant.
Michael Polak, left, the new honorary consul of the Netherlands, is seen with his Dutch-born father, Maximilien.
“My parents are incredibly proud. They came here as Dutch immigrants after the war and struggled to make a new life. I was born here, and now have become honorary consul. It’s almost as if things have come full circle,” said Polak, a 52-year-old lawyer.
This is a new, unpaid position, created with the closure of the Dutch consulate in Montreal due to budgetary cutbacks. Polak, who works in a firm of lawyers in Westmount Square, has done legal work for the Dutch government for many years.
“When they asked if I was interested, I said I would be thrilled,” Polak said.
His mother is Celien, who with her parents and two brothers was deported to the Theresienstadt concentration camp in Czechoslovakia in 1940. Her father, Jo Spier, was a well-known cartoonist in the Netherlands.
The story of how the family lived through that hellish experience was the inspiration for What World is Left, an award-winning young adult novel published in 2008 by Polak’s sister, Monique Polak. Their mother had spoken little about what happened until then.
At the heart of this fictionalization is the fact that Spier was forced to produce drawings for the Nazis that were used in their propaganda depicting the camp as a cultural haven.
This has been a source of guilt for the family up to the present day, Michael said, and his mother’s brothers, now living in the United States, were not initially pleased with the family secret being let out.
Celien was born in the village of Broek in Waterland, outside Amsterdam, and attended the same school as Anne Frank.
Polak’s father, Maximilien, is a former Quebec Superior Court justice and member of the national assembly. At 79, he continues to do some work for the Federal Court of Canada.
Born near Leiden, Maximilien (Max) Polak was one of eight children of a Jewish father and a Christian mother. During the war, his father was sent to a labour camp, and the rest of the family split up and moved about the country, always fearing that, because the children were half-Jewish, they would be rounded up.
Celien and Max met after the war when they were both law students at the University of Leiden. She got her degree but never practised, because her father moved the family to Texas where had landed a job, and later to New York.
Max abandoned his studies to follow his sweetheart, and sailed to America, landing almost by accident in Montreal in 1952. “He had no money. He swept floors at the Five Roses flour mill,” Michael said.
Celien joined him in Montreal, and they married. He completed his law studies at the Université de Montréal, while she worked as a receptionist at Northern Electric. They lived in an unheated flat in Verdun before moving to Côte St. Luc in 1962, to the house they still live in today.
That’s where Michael and his two sisters grew up. He attended Wagar High School, then Marianopolis College and McGill University, where he had earned degrees in civil and common law. He was called to the bar in 1983 and has specialized in commercial and corporate law. With three other people, he runs a firm of 30 lawyers and notaries.
The Netherlands has never been far from Michael’s life. Although his parents spoke only English to the kids, he picked up a fair bit of Dutch – a difficult language – by listening to their conversations. His parents returned to Europe nearly every year, and he has been there eight or nine times. He is fluent in French, which is a necessity when representing the Netherlands’ interests in Quebec.
On a per capita basis, more Dutch Jews perished in the Holocaust than in any other country, Polak noted, but, on the other hand, he said no other country has historically treated its Jewish citizens better, going back to the Inquisition when the country received refugees from Spain.
He points out that the penultimate Dutch consul general in Montreal, Albert Moses, was probably the only senior Jewish diplomat in the city.
As honorary consul, Polak’s job entails acting as liaison between the Dutch government and Quebec, as well as with the province’s small Dutch community. He will handle visa or other issues that visitors from Holland may have, and promote business and cultural ties.
One of his first duties was to greet Quebec maestro Yannick Nézet-Séguin, who is conductor of the Rotterdam Philharmonic Orchestra, when it gave a concert at Place des Arts.
“But the duty I am most proud to fulfil, and is maybe my most important, is maintaining the special relationship between our two countries because of the Canadian Army’s liberation of the Netherlands during World War II,” Polak said.