A Dutch Resistance operative and Holocaust freedom fighter during World War II who now lives in Spokane will be honored as Washingtonian of the Year in February.
Carla Olman Peperzak, 95, estimates she helped hide approximately 40 Jewish people after the Nazis invaded Holland in 1940. She also forged identification documents for about 60 others, served as a messenger for the Underground movement and helped publish a newsletter of Allied forces activities using a banned mimeograph machine.
Peperzak said the state award came as a surprise. An official from Olympia reached out on Friday to schedule a call with Lt. Gov. Cyrus Habib, but they didn’t speak until Monday afternoon. In the meantime, Peperzak said she was eager to find out what the good news was.
“To me, it was really remarkable and completely unexpected,” Peperzak said. “I’m very grateful.”
Peperzak’s resistance work began when she was 18. But she didn’t begin talking about her experiences with her family until she was in her late 60s, around 1992, because she shared the widely held belief that people should move on from the terrible events of the Holocaust.
She became a U.S. citizen in 1958 and moved in 2004 to Spokane, where she met Eva Lassman, who survived a concentration camp and talked publicly about her experiences for many years around the region. When Lassman died in 2011, Peperzak was inspired to take up her mantle and speak more publicly about her own experience.
In the last several years, she has given numerous talks at local schools and universities. She published a memoir about her experiences in 2018 and still speaks publicly two to three times each month. She has upcoming lectures at Gonzaga University and Washington State University in Pullman, she said.
Peperzak said she looks at the recognition from the state as another way to remember the atrocities the Nazis committed, especially in light of the recent rise in anti-Semitic rhetoric and hate crimes.
“I see it as a good thing that people talk a little bit more about the Holocaust and learn more about it,” Peperzak said. “Because obviously we don’t want it to happen again ever.”
Rabbi Yisroel Hahn, who works to bring Holocaust survivors to Spokane for speeches, said Peperzak’s recognition is timely, given her work to expose the destruction that hate and bigotry can cause. And he said how she rebuilt her life in the wake of the Holocaust to then become the educator she is today sends a powerful message of hope to other survivors.
“I think the word ‘survivor’ is wrong,” Hahn said. “She is a hero.”
During a 2017 lecture at Gonzaga University, Peperzak stressed the importance of empathy, as a way to avoid violence, and respect, in order to guard against dangerous, nationalistic propaganda.
“When I talk to schools, I always end with the word ‘respect,’ ” Peperzak said at the time. “Because I think if one can learn to respect one another, you can’t kill. … We have to start trying to understand other people, and where they come from.”
Peperzak also was honored in a 2015 state Senate resolution.
“Carla is a person of incredible grace and heroism. I’d like her story told as far and wide as possible,” Sen. Andy Billig, D-Spokane, told The Spokesman-Review at the time.
Billig is a member of the local Reform congregation Emanu-El, where Peperzak is also a member. She helps organize an annual Holocaust commemoration at Temple Beth Shalom.
Monday marks the 75th anniversary of the liberation of the Auschwitz-Birkenau Nazi death camp in Poland, where at least eight members of Peperzak’s family were among the 1.1 million prisoners. Approximately 18 of her family members were among the some 6 million Jewish people killed by the Nazis throughout World War II.
Peperzak will be awarded Washingtonian of the Year at the governor’s mansion on Feb. 20.
Editor’s note: This story has been updated to reflect that Peperzak will be awarded Washingtonian of the Year, not Washington Person of the Year.
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