The future students of Carla Peperzak Middle School got much more than a history lesson Friday afternoon.
During an unforgettable hourlong session at Ferris High School, they heard from the namesake of their school, which will open next fall.
Students listened to Peperzak’s story of her youth, the Nazi invasion the Netherlands and the persecution of the Jews.
This was living history, a bridging of generations through Peperzak’s recollections of the Holocaust and her experience in the Dutch underground.
About 400 fifth- and sixth-graders followed as the story grew darker and Peperzak told of hiding dozens of Jews and ultimately saving many of them from certain death.
Only 18 years old when World War II broke out around her, Peperzak forged identity papers, worked as a messenger, published an underground newspaper of Allied military activities on a banned mimeograph machine and hid other Jews.
During the question-and-answer session that followed, Peperzak recalled the friends of her youth.
“I lost 80% of them,” she said.
Gasps filled the Ferris auditorium and dozens of hands shot into the air, seeking more answers. And though 98 years old, Peperzak answered them all with vivid recall.
She’s had a lot of practice. Peperzak estimated that she’s given similar talks at “well over a hundred” schools.
But this was special. Barely a mile to the south, construction is under way on the new school that will bear her name. Peperzak Principal Andre Wicks joined her on the stage Friday.
For its future students, Friday’s session put a face on the name, a face of courage that earned Peperzak numerous honors, including Washingtonian of the Year in 2020.
A year later, the Spokane Public Schools board voted to name the new school in her honor.
And yet it took Peperzak decades to move past the horrible memories and begin to tell her story.
Peperzak confessed that she’s still unable to bear watching a movie or television show about the Holocaust.
After the war she married, had children and the family came to the United States in 1958. Decades later, Peperzak finally began to talk about her war experiences after the daughter of a friend was in a school production of “The Diary of Anne Frank.”
The friend asked Peperzak to talk to the cast because her family grew up near the Franks and she knew Anne’s older sister Margot.
After her husband died, Peperzak moved to Spokane in 2004 to live near their oldest daughter and her family. At Temple Beth Shalom, she met Eva Lassman, another Holocaust survivor who gave talks on her experiences and was active in fighting bigotry, racism and violence.
When Lassman was no longer able to continue her work, Peperzak carried it forward.
“It’s important for people to know about this,” Peperzak said.
Another student asked, “What the Holocaust was all about?”
Peperzak told the audience that Adolf Hitler and the Nazis wanted to kill the Jews, and that the 6 million victims of the gas chambers numbered almost as many as the population of Washington state.
“I want people to know that it happened,” Peperzak said.
Silence filled the auditorium. This was a heavy topic for 11- and 12-year-olds, but one of them announced that she wanted to become a history teacher “because history is so inspiring.”
Her message delivered, Peperzak smiled.
“I hope that the new school will not have hatred,” she said.
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