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The Spokesman-Review Newspaper
Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

‘It means everything’: Holocaust survivor Carla Olman Peperzak celebrates 100th birthday at middle school named in her honor

Cupcake in hand, 12-year-old Sawyer Coombs scurried to the edge of the lunchroom to catch the first glimpse of his middle school’s special guest on Tuesday.

“She’s here,” Sawyer exclaimed, dashing back to a table of about five boys waiting just as eagerly.

Moments later, Carla Olman Peperzak, wearing a sparkly tiara, made her way into the crowded lunchroom for her 100th birthday party at the school that bears her name.

A mix of shushing, cheering and more exclamations of “She’s here” swept through the crowd of tweens thrilled with the chance to see one of their heroes.

Peperzak has been at the school a few times in recent months for the dedication and ribbon-cutting, but that didn’t dampen the students’ enthusiasm to celebrate her century of life.

When she was a teenager, Peperzak joined the Dutch Resistance and helped save other Jews from the Holocaust.

She published an underground newspaper of Allied military activities. After studying as a medical technician, she got a job at a hospital where she stole an identity card, bought a German nurse’s uniform and used the disguise to bluff her way into a train station to save a young relative from being sent to a detention center.

After the war, Peperzak married, had four children and moved to the United States in 1958. She rarely spoke of her experience until the early 2000s when a friend from Temple Beth Shalom, Eva Lassman, was unable to continue her work sharing her experience during the Holocaust as a way to fight bigotry.

Peperzak’s efforts have not gone unnoticed. The Spokane Public Schools middle school which opened this fall at 2620 E. 63rd Ave. was named in her honor.

Wearing her Peperzak Pumas sweater, Peperzak said she doesn’t feel 100. She doesn’t seem 100 either. She was an avid swimmer until a few months ago and continues to take daily walks.

“It’s hard to understand that I’m 100 years old,” she said.

Spending time at the middle school gives her joy, she said.

“I like that age very much and really enjoy it,” she said. “The kids are so open, asking questions.”

After wading through the sea of students, shaking hands and giving high-fives, Peperzak sat in front of the group and was presented with a poster and a stack of handmade cards.

“I gave her a present,” Drew Burns exclaimed as he ran back to his friends.

“I just think that it’s really special that she’s 100,” Drew said. “And that she’s in this community and still alive and she’s done something … she’s experienced something horrible, and we get to experience time with her.”

A line of students almost immediately formed in front of Peperzak. One student asked her to sign a lunchbox, the next the cast on his arm, followed by two students who asked her to sign their Crocs.

A group of girls crowded in behind her to snap a photo.

Luci Waggoner, 12, jumped into the photo at the last second.

“I just love her story,” Luci said. “And I think it’s really cool she gets to be here.”

As the line slowed, Principal Andre Wicks asked students if they had any questions for Peperzak. Dozens of hands flew up.

“It means everything,” he said of having Peperzak at the school on her 100th birthday.

The middle schoolers know a lot about Peperzak and have stayed interested in her story, he said.

“We related her story to our school mantra, ‘Becoming your best self,’ and that really embodies everything that Carla lives for,” Wicks said. “So she’s here with us every day.”

Living to 100 is no small feat, Peperzak acknowledges, but it’s difficult to credit any one thing to her longevity.

“Hard to say. My life was very varied,” she said of why she has lived so long. “I think interest in life and interest in people. Love plays a very important part.”