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Dutch underground risked their own safety to protect others

After graduating from high school in 1940, Carla Peperzak’s life changed from teenage parties, Hebrew school and association with Jewish family and friends in Amsterdam. German troops invaded in May. 

Carla Peperzak

Carla Peperzak, who helped family and strangers, displays copies of her ID card and ration cards on her desk.

Dutch Jews, used to Holland’s tolerance, at first thought it wouldn’t be bad, but in 1941, her father arranged with an attorney for her and her sister to have ID cards without a “J” for Jewish, because their mother grew up Catholic.  He had a “J,” had to wear a star and lost his business.

“He always lived in fear and stayed at home,” Carla said.

Her late husband, Paul, whom she met after the war, was not a Jew, but like 80 percent of university students had refused to sign a loyalty oath.  He worked for a farmer to avoid being sent—as many men were—to Germany as forced labor. 

“We did not see young men on the streets,” Carla said.

In July 1942, German troops began picking up people off the streets and people went into hiding from then to the end of the war in May 1945. 

 “The resistance formed soon after the invasion,” she said. 

Carla joined the underground movement when her father’s brother asked her to help him, his wife and two children hide.  She asked a neighbor she trusted to help her find a place for them.  After that, she was in the network.

Carla Peperzak papers

Carla Peperzak, who helped family and strangers, displays copies of her ID card and ration cards on her desk.

They needed new IDs.  So Carla began helping the resistance prepare IDs. Forms printed in England were dropped at night in fields by small, low-flying planes, piloted or navigated by Dutch people who had fled to England.  They knew the countryside.  By radio, they arranged the airdrops.

“We took people’s pictures in photo machines on the streets.  I had a machine to make thumbprints and an official seal.  We changed people’s names, keeping their initials in case they had a ring or handkerchief with initials.  I made new ID cards before people went into hiding.  Some who did not look Jewish used the cards and did not go into hiding.

Carla knew if she was caught, she would be shot or taken to a concentration camp.

“I was young, as most in the underground, and I did not think a lot about that,” she said. “I was grateful not to have a ‘J’ on my ID, and I wanted to help people.”

Another uncle was caught and taken to the transfer camp at Westerbork.  He worked in the hospital there for more than a year.  When his wife and son were put on a train, he went with them.

“That was the last we saw of them,” Carla said.

“Some who were taken sent a card back to family in Holland to say, ‘We are okay.’  That was to throw relatives off,” she said.

One of her father’s sisters was taken with two small children. Several months after another sister’s husband was picked up in Rotterdam, where they lived, the sister and her five children were picked up.

“I learned she was on her way to Westerbork.  The train would stop in Amsterdam.  Through the resistance, I had a German nurse’s uniform and passport.  At the station, I found her and took her two-year-old. When I was stopped, I just said, ‘My boy is sick.’”

Although she rescued her cousin, her parents couldn’t take him. He went into hiding, moving from one place to another.  After the war, her parents took him, but because he had been moved around and not been loved, he lied, stole and did not want to go to school.

“My parents struggled with him the rest of their lives,” she said.

Another time, Carla took a pregnant friend, whose husband had been deported, to the hospital to give birth.  The SS (Schutzstauffel troops) came to her house and learned she was at the hospital.  Friends called to warn her. She fled without the baby.  The SS took the baby and her boy.

Carla learned the baby was in the hospital at Westerbork.  After two weeks, the mother gave herself up and was taken with the children to Bergen Belsen.  They returned after the war.  She died three months later of cancer and her sister-in-law took the children.

Carla used the underground’s mimeograph.  While Dutch newspapers ran German news, the underground had radios and heard news from London at night.  Once a week, she published a newspaper, which the underground passed out so people knew what was happening in the war.

When people went into hiding, they needed ration cards.  Some in the resistance stole ration cards from distribution centers, and some cards came from England.

“Some people went to friends for what they expected would be a day, two weeks or a month.  Imagine living two-and-a-half years in an attic, only coming out at night.  Think of the host and hostess who had people in the house,” she said.  “The SS paid people 75 guilders to turn in Jews.”

Carla did not tell her parents what she was doing.

“It was too dangerous,” she said.  “Sometimes I had to lay low or hide for a few days, not knowing what the Nazis knew.”

After graduating, she went to a private academy for a 36-month course to be a medical technologist.  She did not need to sign a loyalty oath.  Her work in the resistance gave her little time to study or attend classes, so she failed some exams.  When she graduated, she worked with a doctor two days a week, then at a camp for Dutch Nazis and then for the army nurses corps.

In the resistance, Carla worked in a cluster of 12.  There were many clusters.   Most were men.  Few were Jewish.  They only went by first names, often not their real names.  She knew only a friend from the academy and a cousin on her mother’s side in the underground.

“Many Dutch Jews were Dutch first.  Some were just Jewish ethnically, others were ethnic and religious,” said Carla, who went to Hebrew school with Anne Frank’s sister, Margot.  Her family lived a block away.

Carla’s brother-in-law fled through Belgium, France and Spain.  He went to Cuba and then New York, where he joined the Canadian army’s Dutch division and went to England to fix planes.

Of 150,000 Jews in Holland before the war, only 20,000 remained.  Some went into hiding. Some had fled.  Some did not come back.  She estimates that about 3,000 helped with the resistance.  The percentage of Dutch Jews killed was the highest in all of Europe.

“For years, I did not talk about or think about my experience.  I did not even tell my children,” she said.  “I forgot much, but now I know it’s important to talk.”

Now her motivation is to tell people to help them.

Carla, 89, met her husband in 1947.  In 1948, they came to the United States when he accepted a scholarship to study agriculture. 

Once the war ended, it was a relief, and we wanted to leave Europe, afraid the Communists would take over,” she said.

After his studies and five years in Liberia, West Africa, Paul earned a doctoral degree in tropical agriculture.  They moved to Hawaii, became U.S. citizens in 1958, and then went to Thailand where he worked with international organizations.

Paul was not Jewish, and Carla did not want anything to do with Judaism for 25 years.

“I tried not to think about the war years.  In Honolulu, we went to ‘The Diary of Anne Frank,’ and I couldn’t take it.  I had to leave after the first act.  Few talked about the Holocaust until the 1980s,” she said.

“Eventually, I felt homesick and started going to a Reform synagogue in Washington, D.C., when Paul worked with the World Bank,” she said.

When he retired, they settled in Colorado Springs, central for visiting grandchildren.  Paul began attending the synagogue there with her until he died in 2001.

The first time she spoke about her experiences was to talk about Anne Frank at her grandchildren’s school in Spokane, after she moved here in 2004. 

Friendships with Germans in Washington, D.C. and Colorado Springs helped Carla overcome her hesitancy about Germans.

“I’m not over it,” she admitted.  “I do not hate or fear Germans any more, but I do not like to be reminded of what happened.”

However, after Eva Lassman, the region’s Holocaust educator for many years, died in 2011, Carla knew someone had to continue to educate people.  Now she speaks in elementary, middle and high schools in Post Falls, Coeur d’Alene and Spokane.

“I automatically came into the resistance.  I could do it, so I did it.  There was a need, and I was able to fill the need,” Carla said.  “Human nature is about caring.  Most people are not selfish.

“I was afraid, but not afraid enough not to do it,” she said.  “Others also risked their lives.  We needed to protect people.  I did what I could to help.”

Carla is a member of Spokane’s Reform congregation, Emanu-El, and participates with Temple Beth Shalom, such as in planning Yom HaShoah.

For information, call 532-1037 or email copeperzak@gmail.com.



Copyright © April 2013 - The Fig Tree