Carla Peperzak’s story and honors have one goal: never again

Carla Peperzak.
Carla Peperzak

Women’s History Month

Throughout March, WSU is featuring stories of women whose contributions to society have helped shape the university and the world.

Carla Olman Peperzak has told her story of helping Jews during World War II many times. She’s been honored for her heroism, including receiving an honorary doctoral degree from Washington State University that will be conferred at commencement in May.

On this cold February day, however, she has something else on her mind.

“Germany before the war was a highly educated, culturally advanced country,” Peperzak recalled. Yet Adolph Hitler was able to rise to power, setting in motion the horrors of the Holocaust. “If that can happen in a country like Germany, it can happen anywhere,” she said.

Peperzak, who turned 100 years old in November, worries that young people don’t know about the Holocaust. That’s one of the reasons she finally ended her decades-long silence about her war experiences in the Dutch Resistance.

Now she talks to groups young and old about World War II, about what it was like to hide family members and other Jews from the Nazis, about creating fake identification papers and ration cards to help people survive.

She didn’t talk about this for so long because “In the beginning, people weren’t interested,” Peperzak said. “We wanted to go on with life and we wanted to forget. But of course, the forgetting part was impossible.”

In the beginning, people weren’t interested. We wanted to go on with life and we wanted to forget. But of course, the forgetting part was impossible.

Carla Peperzak

Peperzak married agronomist Paul Peperzak after the war. His work for the World Bank and the United Nations took the couple and their four children to Asia, Africa, Europe, and the United States.

Carla Peperzak worked as a paralegal, in real estate, and volunteered in the community. Finally, when the couple retired in Colorado Springs, she began to talk about her experiences.

“Many students don’t know, and that’s really the reason I’m talking,” she said.

News coverage of her story brought her in contact with Raymond Sun, professor of history at WSU, who specializes in Holocaust and genocide studies. Sun helped bring Peperzak’s story to wider audiences.

Through Sun, Peperzak, now living in Spokane, came to know WSU. She talks to his classes every year, and Sun nominated Peperzak for the honorary doctoral degree.

“I think it’s a wonderful school,” she said. “The students I’ve connected with are very nice, and of course Ray Sun is very special.”

Last fall Spokane Public Schools opened Carla Olman Peperzak Middle School, and Peperzak was there for the occasion.

Peperzak said she’s grateful for that, as well as for the WSU honor.

But, she added, “It’s not about me. It’s about the Holocaust. Hopefully people will be informed so it doesn’t happen again.”

By Addy Hatch, WSU Insider