Carla Peperzak was 18 when she began her resistance against the Nazis.
When they invaded her home country of Holland in 1940, she refused to put a yellow star on her clothing, a crime that could have carried a death sentence.
Peperzak saved the lives of 40 Jewish people by finding safe houses and smuggling food, said Beth Griech Polelle, chair of Pacific Lutheran University’s Holocaust and Genocide studies program.
Now 96, Peperzak lives in Washington. She’ll be a guest of honor at PLU’s upcoming Powell-Heller Conference for Holocaust Education.
“There’s always good people. There’s always brave people, even in the darkest of times,” Griech-Polelle said. “We can’t let go of the fact that there were always good people who understood evil for what it was when they were living through it, and they were willing to die for the sake of their principals. I think that’s very inspiring.”
The annual, multi-day conference brings in leading scholars in Holocaust studies from across the world. The conference is free and open to the public, and each year chooses a different theme as its focus.
Last year’s conference focused on the role of science and medicine in the Holocaust and brought in around 400 attendees, including students and faculty from the school of nursing.
This year’s theme, “Resistence: Jewish resistance and rescue during the Holocaust,” focuses on the different ways people worked to fight against the Nazis.
“After the one on medicine, it was so devastating after you have panel after panel talking about unethical experimentation on people and so forth, I think we were due for a topic that’s sort of uplifting,” Griech-Polelle said.
The conference will begin at 7 p.m. on Oct. 23 and continue through 2 p.m. on Oct. 25. Academics will explore different types of resistance, including through music and sports.
On Oct. 24, Peperzak will answer questions about her work and her life after historian working on a project about her resistance makes a presentation.
A scholar from Yad Vashem, the World Holocaust Remembrance Center in Israel, also will present about the resistance work of Jewish women during the Holocaust. Griech-Polelle said Jewish women would go undercover to pass messages, supplies, even arms between ghettos.
“Some people resisted, and they didn’t survive to the end of the war, but while they were alive they felt a sense of agency and a sense of empowerment,” Griech-Polelle said. “I think that’s an important message.”
The conference’s keynote speaker this year, Dr. Robert Jan van Pelt, will expound Jewish resistance in German death camps.
Van Pelt, a Canadian academic from the University of Waterloo, specializes in the architecture of concentration camps, in particular the death camp Auschwitz. Griech-Polelle said that he has used his expertise to testify against Holocaust deniers in high-profile legal cases.
“I was looking through a book on Jewish resistance,” Griech-Pollele said, “and he had written a very powerful essay about Jewish resistance inside concentration camps and ghettos. I thought this would be a fantastic keynote address.”
‘Even in the darkest of times’
PLU has a long history of focusing on Holocaust education. In 1974, Christopher Browning, one of the most influential modern Holocaust scholars, took a teaching position at the college.
He started the university’s first class on the Holocaust and remained at the school for decades, Griech-Polelle said. His time there established Holocaust education as an emphasis of the school.
“From that (came a) strong commitment at a Lutheran university to make sure students knew about what many German evangelical Lutherans did in Nazi Germany,” she said. “The majority population under Hitler was about 40 million evangelical Protestants, and they made the Holocaust possible, alongside 20 million Roman Catholics.”
PLU started its Holocaust and Genocide studies program six years ago, she said. Interested undergraduates can major or minor in it. About 20 students this year are minoring, Griech-Polelle said, and two will complete specialized majors.
Undergraduates in the program also can conduct research projects with a faculty member, which they’ll then present at October’s conference.
“That’s what history’s about,” Griech-Polelle said. “It’s trying to understand the truth, but the truth of how people live their lives is it’s complicated, it’s messy, it’s not usually black and white for any of us. The more we can get students to see that, the better human beings they’re going to be.”
‘It is very frightening’
With far-right nationalism and anti-Semitic attacks on the rise, Griech-Polelle views PLU’s conference and Holocaust education as especially important.
Right-wing nationalists have gained power in many European countries, she said, citing specific instances in Hungary, Greece, Romania, Holland and France. Last year’s shooting at a synagogue in Pittsburgh shows anti-Semitism present in the United States as well.
“It is very frightening,” she said.
Griech-Polelle finds it concerning that modern far-right nationalists draw on a lot of the anti-Semitic rhetoric and stereotypes used in Germany during the rise of Hitler.
“Much of the language that they have chosen to incorporate is a return to a lot of imagery that we have seen from the 1920s and 1930s,” she said.
Griech-Polelle recently finished a textbook on the history of anti-Semitism.
Called “Anti-Semitism and the Holocaust: Language, Rhetoric and the Traditions of Hatred,” it traces anti-Semitic rhetoric and stereotypes through history, some of which she says originated during the ancient Roman empire.
Stereotypes are often repeated throughout history, she said.
“In times of great uncertainty and instability people are eager to latch onto the simplest explanation that promises to solve all their problems,” she said. “And that usually involves scapegoating a group of people.”
She’s concerned by modern rhetoric which encourages hatred and division among different groups of people.
“There’s all kinds of things that people want to use as the scapegoat, that this is the reason why things are bad for you as a person … But that is never really the truth. In the end, it ends up culminating in something like the Holocaust,” she said.
Powell-Heller Conference for Holocaust Education
When: Oct. 23, 7 p.m.; Oct. 24, 9 a.m. to 8:15 p.m.; Oct. 25, 8:30 a.m. to 2 p.m.
Where: Pacific Lutheran University, 12180 Park Ave. S., Tacoma.
Cost: Free admission, $12:50 or $13:50 for a boxed lunch, $35 for Thursday evening reception. Register on the PLU website.