By Rev. Paul Graves
When we grow up, we want to be like Carla Peperzak!
That was how my wife and I felt after our three-hour lunch and visit with Carla in her home at Rockwood Retirement Communities. At 99 years old, she is mentally and physically much younger. Her passion for teaching children about the horrors of the Holocaust is keen and always eager.
We visited some about the 2023 opening of a new middle school in Spokane bearing her name. She enjoys knowing the school mascot is a puma, the Peperzak Pumas. But mostly, she hopes the Pumas will include some curriculum about the Holocaust. What an opportunity for those middle-school youth to learn about one of the most tragic chapters in 20th-century world history.
A Holocaust survivor herself, Carla’s desire that we “never forget” is bone-deep. She and her immediate family were spared, but two-thirds of her family were victims of the Nazi campaign of Jewish extermination. At 19 years old, Carla joined the Dutch Resistance and saved many Jews while helping to disrupt the Nazi presence in the Netherlands.
For many decades, Carla tried to forget what had happened in those war years. Like countless other people, what she saw and experienced was too painful. It was only after she and her husband, Paul, retired and moved to Colorado Springs that she began to consider sharing her experience.
A friend’s young daughter was participating in a play based on “The Diary of Anne Frank.” Carla was asked if she might speak to the cast about knowing Anne Frank and her family. She had trouble sleeping the night before that talk to the cast, and she didn’t sleep well afterward either.
But she had taken the first small steps into a new “career,” sharing with children and adults something of what the Holocaust was about. Since moving to Spokane to be closer to one of her daughters, Carla has spoken to many school classes.
My personal guess? She’s told those children not only about the facts of the Holocaust but also about the deeply human drive to not only survive but to thrive, as human beings.
Carla is concerned that her adopted country, America, currently leans toward denying the darker sides of our history. So her Holocaust talks remind students it’s a significant, honest part of world history.
I strongly suspect that besides confronting that darkness, she also reminds children that facing our history honestly and fearlessly may keep us from repeating some of those same systemic mistakes again. I’m sure she is right.
But telling her story has a cost for Carla. Even now, after so long, she finds it difficult to talk about her Holocaust experiences. I asked her if it takes courage to talk to groups. “No,” she responded, “It’s more like I sacrifice my comfort so others can learn from me.” I believe sacrificing her comfort so others can learn has been part of Carla’s DNA her whole life.
While respecting Carla’s dismissing any sense of self-courage, I believe her sharing her Holocaust stories is both courageous and powerful. She reminds us that we, too, are called to speak up when personal, political or religious intimidation needs to be confronted. We are called to challenge misinformation with facts, fear with hope. That may require us to “sacrifice my comfort” so others can live without fear of harassment.
We don’t need to be boisterous in our speaking up, only courageous enough to do it. Carla Peperzak isn’t waving pompoms to share her message. She’s simply telling her story of tragedy and hope. Let’s be like Carla!
The Rev. Paul Graves serves as the chair of the Council on Older Adult Ministries for the Pacific Northwest Conference of The United Methodist