Carla Peperzak helped the Dutch Resistance and now helps educate on the Holocaust.
With these times calling for new ways of action and caring, we choose for our lead story, the story of Carla Peperzak, recently named Washington's Person of the Year.
For most of her 96 years, Carla Peperzak sought to live a normal day-to-day life, remembering, but silent about, the atrocities she experienced in her teen years in the Dutch Resistance, helping save the lives of the 40 Jews she hid during World War II.
Because few Holocaust survivors talked about it, several generations of young people knew little about 6 million Jews dying. For many years, she avoided Judaism.
The resistance formed soon after German troops invaded Holland and began picking up people on the streets in July 1942. Carla's father, Morrie Olman, a fashion designer, had an attorney remove the "J" for Jew from the ID cards of Carla and her sister, Miep. Their mother was not Jewish.
Carla became Catholic because it was safer. That meant she could work with the underground in a group of eight resistance workers.
She joined the underground when her father's brother asked her to hide his wife, two children and him. A trusted neighbor helped her find a place.
Today, she said, her greatest "revenge" against the Nazis is her survival and the lives of her three daughters, son, 11 grandchildren and, in May, 20 great-grandchildren.
Carla, a member of Temple Beth Shalom and its Yom Hashoah Committee, knows she has a responsibility to educate people about the Holocaust. She speaks with junior high, high school, university students and adults, and a few grade school classes.
In her memoir, Keys to My Life, she writes that "the more informed the students are, the better they can understand that terrible time and, hopefully, prevent it from happening again."
While many students today could care less, there are always some who care. Many of them submit essays and art to the Eva Lassman Memorial Essay Contest and Art Contest. Entries are in and being evaluated.
"I want today's teens to know about it and spread the word," she said.
"When I first started sharing what I experienced, it brought back memories. It was hard to sleep the nights before and after presentations," Carla said. "It's easier now. I'm convinced that telling young people about the Holocaust is why I have lived so long. It's the most important part of my life."
In the resistance, she made the best of each day, or "I might not have been able to function," she said. "I believed the government was terrible, but I was hopeful, so I continued.
"I did what I did and did not think too much about it, or I might not have done it," she said.
Carla, who was 16 when the war started in May 1940, was taking her final high school exams. The University of Amsterdam required signing a loyalty oath. She would not sign, so she studied to be a medical technologist at a private university.
She was 18 to 20 when she hid Jews.
"People thought I was in school when I was away. I didn't earn my degree until 1944," said Carla. "I was cautious. I did not tell my parents or sister what I was doing. The less they knew, the safer they were."
She helped Jews she hid get new IDs, so they did not have to wear a star. She picked up blank ID cards printed in England and dropped in pre-arranged places at night by low-flying English planes. She added photos and had a machine to make thumbprints. She made about 100 IDs.
Radios were confiscated. It was dangerous to listen to the radio, but at the house of a fellow resistance fighter, she also listened to BBC news. They prepared a one-page sheet with news. Carla made copies on a mimeograph.
"We handed out the copies, careful about who got them," she said.
Carla rode her bike to farms for food and brought hosts extra ration cards underground members stole from distribution centers. She visited the people she hid each month, bringing them ration cards and medicines, and spending time with them. Often, she and her family were hungry.
"I also carried messages to different places," she said. "We could not use the phone or mail."
She usually rode her bike to avoid roadblocks, but sometimes went by train. When she met someone in another town, each had a piece of paper cut to match the other, so they knew they had the right person.
Carla had a German nurse's ID and uniform she sometimes wore.
"I spoke fluent German, so I got out of some tough spots. I was scared most of the time. I had to be so careful," she said. "German soldiers and SS officers liked girls, so sometimes I flirted my way out of a difficult situation."
One day, two Nazi secret police interrogated her at her home. They found nothing out of order. Flirting helped her out of that situation. The men even helped her carry her suitcase—containing forged paperwork and the thumbprint machine—downstairs to her bike.
A few times Carla went into hiding, riding her bicycle out of Amsterdam to stay with people in the underground.
"In my underground group, I did not know last names, and sometimes did not know their first names," she said. "If I was caught, I could truthfully say I did not know others' names."
Carla began working as a medical technician near the end of the war. After the war, she had no contact with those in her underground network.
Before Otto Frank's family went into hiding, they lived half a block away. Margot and Anne were in the Reform temple Carla attended in Amsterdam. When she first went to see "The Diary of Anne Frank" with her daughter, Carla had to leave after the first act.
Three of her father's six siblings and their spouses died in concentration camps. Of Holland's 150,000 Jews before the war, only 20,000 survived.
After the war, Carla worked eight months as medical officer in a camp for Dutch Nazis. She had a bit of revenge when some complained about the food. She put a tube into their stomachs without anesthesia and pumped their stomachs "to see if they needed a special diet."
Then she worked with the Royal Dutch Army Nurses Corp Blood Transfusion service.
In the record cold spring of 1945 after liberation, 25,000 people died from hunger, disease and malnutrition, she wrote in her memoir.
Under the Marshall Plan, her father returned to his work, manufacturing and designing women's clothing in a factory he owned.
Carla met her husband, Paul Peperzak, after the war. He studied tropical agriculture at the University of Amsterdam, where she had begun studies to be a doctor. He had a scholarship to go to Iowa State College in Ames. They married in November 1947. He left for the U.S. soon after, and she joined him in February 1948.
After he earned a master's degree in soil management, they went to Liberia, West Africa, where their children Marc and Marian were born. Returning to Iowa in 1953, he worked on a doctoral degree. Two more children, Joan and Yvonne, were born there. In 1956, they moved to Hawaii, where they became U.S. citizens in 1958.
Because Paul was Catholic, they raised their children in that faith. His work with the United Nations took them to Thailand and Italy. They also lived in Alabama, Florida, California and Washington, D.C., where Paul joined the World Bank. They then spent five years in Kenya, returning to Washington, D.C., in 1979. After Paul retired, they moved in 1988 to Colorado Springs. After he died in 2001, Carla moved to Spokane in 2004 to be with her daughter, Marian.
She returned slowly to Judaism after her children left home.
It took 18 years for Carla to write her memoir, which is published on demand through Amazon. Proceeds go to scholarships for Yom HaShoah.
Carla visited her family in Holland almost every year. In recent years, until her sister's death, they kept in contact through Facetime.
When asked about forgiving, she said, "We cannot forgive someone who kills people, only those people killed and God can do that."
Recently recognized as the 2020 Washingtonian of the Year, Carla said she is grateful if it means people talk about the Holocaust, because it's important for people to know about it.
Why was she in the underground?
"I could help, so I did. It needed to be done," she said.
On receiving the award at the Governor's Mansion, she said that she speaks about the Holocaust "because it is necessary. I can do it, so I do it."
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Copyright@ The Fig Tree, April, 2020