Like Carla Peperzak, Let’s Sacrifice Our Comfort to Talk about Past and Present Injustices
Commentary by 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 Peperzak 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, Peperzak’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, she joined the Dutch Resistance and saved many Jews and helped to disrupt the Nazi presence in the Netherlands.
For many decades, Peperzak 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 her and her husband, Paul, retired and moved to Colorado Springs, Colorado, that she began to consider sharing her experience.
A friend’s young daughter was participating in a play based on “The Diary of Ann Frank.” Peperzak was asked if she might speak to the cast about knowing Ann Frank and her family. She had trouble sleeping the night before that talk to the cast, and she didn’t sleep well afterwards 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, Peperzak 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.
Peperzak 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, 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 Peperzak. 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 her “DNA” her whole life.
While respecting Peperzak’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. Peperzak isn’t waving pom poms to share her message. She’s simply telling her story of tragedy and hope.
Let’s be like her.
Note: SpokaneFāVS published a news article on Peperzak in 2019, about the memoir she published on her life when she was 95 years old.
Paul Graves is a retired and re-focused United Methodist pastor and a long-time resident of Sandpoint, Idaho, where he formerly served on city council and mayor. His second career is in geriatric social work, and since 2005 he’s been the Lead Geezer-in-Training of Elder Advocates, a consulting and teaching ministry on aging issues. Since 1992, Graves has been a volunteer chaplain for Bonner Community Hospice. His columns regularly appear in The Spokesman-Review’s Faith and Values section, and he also writes the Dear Geezer column for the Bonner County Daily Bee and is the host of the bi-weekly Geezer Forum on aging issues in Sandpoint.