For more than 50 years, she wouldn’t talk about what happened during the war.
As a teenage operative in the Dutch Resistance, Carla Olman Peperzak helped hide approximately 40 Jews.
“I tried to forget, but I could not and should not,” says Peperzak, now 96 and the 2020 Washington State Person of the Year. “These experiences showed me how fragile life is, but also the opposite—how people can live through them.”
By the time she met Raymond “Ray” Sun, an associate professor of history at Washington State University in Pullman, she had already dedicated the rest of her life to telling her story. Sun first read about Peperzak’s Underground work five years ago in The Spokesman-Review and arranged for her to speak to his World War II history class. Now he’s working on weaving her wartime narrative into a manuscript that explores the history of Dutch Jews as well as gender roles—particularly women’s—during World War II.
In the meantime, he has a chapter about Peperzak—tentatively titled “Hiding in Plain Sight: Gender, Faith, and the Conflicted Legacies of a Dutch Rescuer”—due this spring for a forthcoming compilation organized by the Finkler Institute of Holocaust Research at Bar Ilan University together with the B’nai B’rith World Organization.
“Her generation is disappearing very, very rapidly,” Sun says. “We’re really running out of these witnesses. There’s some sense of urgency to capture their stories as a powerful means to teach.”
Stories like Peperzak’s, he says, “make it so much easier to understand the big picture.”
Sun specializes in Holocaust and genocide studies and modern German and military history. He also studies how war affects societies and how societies remember war. He’s particularly interested in examining resistance and resilience.
He began interviewing Peperzak, a member of the speaker’s bureau for Seattle’s Holocaust Center for Humanity, in 2016. He has since incorporated her experiences into his research, presented scholarly papers on her Resistance work at conferences, and appeared with her on stage for Q&A sessions.
“I’ve looked a lot at the perpetrators, the bad guys,” he says. “Her story really got me into looking at the people who rescued or helped Jews.”
Holland had one of Western Europe’s highest Jewish death rates in World War II, which ended 75 years ago in the European Theater. The Allies accepted Germany’s surrender May 8, 1945. Roughly a quarter, or about 35,000 Jews, survived. In all, some 6 million Jews—including about 75 percent of Peperzak’s family, about 18 people in all—were exterminated.
“I never spoke about it,” Peperzak says. “It was too difficult. You try to forget. You try to go on with life.”
She broke her silence after her granddaughter asked her to speak at her school. Since then, she’s shared her story from Seattle and Tacoma to Pullman, and points in between. She’s also finished a memoir, Keys of My Life, available on Amazon.
Washington legislature’s Resolution 8623 honors her “as a selfless and brave hero, who saved the lives of many and is now using her experiences to speak to new generations and educate us all about our history and the human capacity to care for others while facing unimaginably difficult challenges.”
But, she says, “I don’t consider myself a hero. I could help, so I helped. I did what I could do.”
Desire to help
When the Nazis invaded the Netherlands, Peperzak was 16 and preparing to graduate from high school. She ice-skated on frozen canals in winter and rowed on the Amstel River in summer. Soon after the occupation started, Nazis raided her mostly-Jewish rowing club, rounding up about a half-dozen male athletes.
Peperzak never saw them again.
As the occupation wore on, Nazis upped their restrictions, requiring Jews to register. There were 159,806 in all, including 19,561 born of mixed marriages, like Peperzak. Her father was Jewish. Her mother was a Catholic orphan raised by a Jewish family.
“You couldn’t go on the bus,” Peperzak says. “You couldn’t go on the train. You couldn’t go on the street car. You couldn’t go in the park. All Jewish bank accounts were confiscated. All Jewish safety deposit boxes were confiscated.”
Nazis required Jews to wear the yellow six-pointed Star of David and pitted neighbors against neighbors, encouraging the Dutch to identify Jews who were hiding or hadn’t registered. “You were paid,” Peperzak says, “for bringing in a Jewish person.”
Her father managed to procure paperwork identifying his wife and two daughters as non-Jewish. “I know it cost him a lot of money,” says Peperzak, who didn’t tell her parents or sister about her Resistance work. “I got a new ID. I didn’t have to wear the star, and that gave me so much more freedom. I was grateful. I wanted to help people.”
Peperzak lived in south Amsterdam’s Rivierenbuurt neighborhood, about a block from the Frank family apartment on Merwedeplein. The grassy square, which Anne Frank called “The Merry,” is now anchored by a statue of the young diarist, her face turned toward the home she left to go into hiding. Peperzak visited “once or twice.” She was in the same Hebrew class as Anne’s older sister, and their families attended the same Reform temple. In 1939, Peperzak and the Frank sisters performed in the same Purim play.
Peperzak’s father owned a clothing and fur factory one canal from Prinsengracht, where Otto Frank had the warehouse with the Secret Annex. Of the eight who hid there for more than two years, he was the only one to survive. Peperzak didn’t learn of their fate until after the war.
Advantage in youth
She enrolled in a private medical technology college and started her practicum in a local hospital, where she stole a German medical identity card and bought a German nurse’s uniform from a colleague. Both—along with her bicycle—became important to her Resistance work. Often posing as a German nurse and pedaling as far as The Hague—about 40 miles away—she helped hide Jews in attics, basements, and barns in rural Holland.
She also checked on her charges—many of whom were friends or extended family members—bringing food, medical supplies, stolen ration cards, and identity cards that she forged. “I made about 100 false ID cards,” she says. “I was pretty good at it.”
She was also good at hiding in plain sight. She was young, attractive, and fluent in German, which she had learned in school as well as from her Austrian nanny. When she was stopped by German soldiers, she says, “I flirted with them. I’m not a flirt normally, but I flirted with them. I was the right age. And it got me out of some sticky situations.”
Peperzak’s uncle had already been captured when she learned her aunt and five of her cousins would be passing through Amsterdam’s Centraal Station on their way to Westerbork. Fewer than 5 percent of the people who were held at the Nazi dentention center—about 5,200 of some 107,000 detainees, the majority of whom were Dutch Jews—survived. Most were gassed upon arrival at concentration camps throughout Europe.
Peperzak found their train car and asked her aunt if she could take the youngest. She carried him off the train and was holding him when German soldiers stopped her. She was wearing her German nurse’s uniform and carrying her stolen medical identity card. In German, she explained the child was ill and needed to get to the hospital.
They let her leave. But she never saw her aunt, uncle, and other four cousins again.
“She’s 18 to 21 years old when she’s doing this,” Sun says. “She’s this young woman, taking her life into her hands and making decisions that I’ve never had to make—that most of us have never had to make in our entire lives. She’s doing this out in the open. These were gendered experiences. What she could do as a woman—because she was a woman—was very different from a man.”
“A lot of hope”
Peperzak helped publish an Underground newsletter on Allied Forces’ activities. She listened to BBC News on a banned radio, duplicated her notes on a banned mimeograph machine, then distributed copies. “That was probably the most dangerous thing I did,” she says. “If you passed them to the wrong person that would be the end.”
She usually didn’t know the names of the people she was meeting. Peperzak explains: “I had a piece of paper that was cut a certain way, and the other person had a paper that was cut a certain way, and they would fit, and that is how you would know.”
She kept the thumbprint-making machine she used for falsifying documents in a small attaché case. It was sitting in plain view when two Nazis came to her home to interrogate her. “I passed the test,” she says.
But, as they were leaving, one offered to carry the case. Peperzak, who was also heading out—to do Resistance work, no less—couldn’t say no. That would’ve been suspicious. “If it had fallen open,” she says, “I would not be sitting here.”
Every time she was stopped, she “was absolutely scared to death. There was this pressure always on you. I was always scared. For five years, I was scared. But I was young enough I also had hope. I had a lot of hope.”
When liberation came, “it was a tremendous relief. That’s what I remember—the relief. Not being afraid anymore. Being able to do things.”
She married a Dutch Catholic, moved to America, became a U.S. citizen, and lived around the world—from Liberia and Thailand to Hawaii, Washington, D.C., and now Spokane. But she hasn’t been able to forget or forgive. “How can you forgive somebody who killed a family member?” she says. “To me, it’s impossible.”
Instead, she speaks of the importance of respect along with her own personal revenge: her four children, 11 grandchildren and 18 great-grandchildren—with one more on the way, due in May.