For Bea Karp, silence was never an option. She understood from an early age that the only way to fight back, to avenge the death of her parents, cousins, aunts, uncles, and community members, to make some kind of sense of the dark and horrific times of her childhood, and defeat the Nazi killing machine years after the end of WWII, was to tell her story. Bea has been telling her story for decades. She has been telling it to anyone who asks, to all who will listen. She has been telling it to teachers, friends, neighbors, middle-school students, high-school students, and college students in churches, synagogues, and schools. Throughout it all, she knows—silence is not an option. Silence is deadly. The only way to fight back is to tell her story, letting her words do the fighting.
Bea was born in 1932 into a Jewish Orthodox family in the town of Lauterbach in Western Germany, only a year prior to Hitler’s appointment as chancellor of Germany. Bea loved her childhood home. Living an Orthodox life meant her family kept all Jewish rules and traditions, such as keeping the Sabbath, studying the Torah (the holy book), eating only Kosher food (e.g. no pork, shellfish, or mixing dairy and meat), and living in the sheltered and close-knit community and warmth of Judaism. Bea felt safe within the cultural walls of her family and the Jewish community. She lived a Jewish life. Her whole world was Jewish.
Bea was only six when German forces entered Austria, initiating Germany’s hostility toward Europe. Although sanctions against the Jews started much earlier with Hitler’s rise to power, young Bea believed that the war overtaking Europe and her world was a war against Jews. Not until she arrived to her aunt and uncle’s home in London after World War II did she realize that the war was worldwide. Until then, she believed Hitler and his Nazis’ one and only agenda was to destroy the Jewish community that shaped her childhood sense of identity and safety.
I met Bea in her home, a spacious, generously lit condo, nestled in the middle of Omaha, just off Dodge, the city’s main street. The clean, white and crisp layout of her home made me feel at ease right from the start. Up until our meeting, I had only heard her voice, a gentle German-accented tone, articulating and pronouncing her words smoothly and precisely. During those brief phone calls, I could hear the smile in her voice. I was not surprised to see her smiling as she opened the door, though I was surprised by her petite and slender stature. She invited me in. I took a mental note of the artifacts hanging on her walls, decorating the entrance to her home—Judaic art; artwork featuring the Star of David and Hebrew letters; a well-thought-out sketch of an El-Al aircraft, the official Israeli airline; a portrait of an old Jewish man, perhaps a Rabbi or a family member, reading holy scripture; an American passport; and the cover of a Siddur (Jewish prayer book). Also hanging in frames on the wall were two child-sized, old sweaters, one blue with red trimming, the other white with blue trimming with the letter B embroidered on the chest; a pair of peach colored trousers; and a small, hand-woven, brown straw handbag. The background featured four photocopies of letters in German. All of these items were encased in glass, protected and shielded. Bea’s art displays were not accidental, chosen merely for their stylistic appeal. Rather, this artwork made a statement. I knew that each and every piece had a story to tell. But, I had to pace myself. She led me toward her kitchen table where she had already placed a bowl of snacks and a glass of water for me. We sat down. She began to talk. She seemed more at ease than I did. She has done this before.
“You know something,” Bea said and nodded her head my way, laying her hands on the kitchen table. “I never knew that it was a worldwide war. I thought it was a war against the Jews, believe it or not. And I just found that out [it was a worldwide war] when I came to England, at the age of twelve, when my aunt explained it to me” (Interview). She smiled a little. I can understand why. How might you explain to a six-year-old child that all the hate, sanctions, and vicious targeting at you and your family endured was not a personal attack? How might a child be able to see and understand the world beyond their own horrifying tragedies? Especially when it is a child who has grown up surrounded by a warm and caring Jewish community with members who had their homes, professions, beliefs, family members, and dignity stripped away.
Bea is accustomed to telling her story, sharing details that many would rather forget, details many survivors have worked hard to tuck away or erase completely from their memory. A fellow Israeli woman living in Omaha has described her mother’s persistence in convincing her family members and herself that she does not know or remember the Polish language even though she was born and raised in Poland. Living in Israel for more than sixty years, she has refused to admit that she ever understood Polish. Only after making the journey with her family back to Poland, and meeting a man with whom she spent her childhood, did the Polish flow out of her, clear and torrential as if she had never left. Unlike my acquaintance’s mother, Bea understood from early on that telling her story is her most powerful weapon. She explains and reiterates this imperative at her many talks, such as at Omaha’s Lewis and Clark Middle School:
“I tell this story in memory of my parents and the six million Jews that died. I don’t want the world to forget. It’s a lesson to the future and the future is in your hands. And it’s up to you to make sure nothing like that will ever happen again” (IHE 3).
Bea recalled the first time she told her story to strangers, people other than her husband, Bob Pappenheimer. Bob, Bea, and their firstborn daughter Rosanne had moved from hustling and bustling New York City to the small, quiet, and serene Midwestern town of O’Neal, Nebraska, where they were the only Jewish family in the area. In fact, they were the only Jews the locals had ever met. Some townspeople had more than unrealistic misconceptions about what Jews were and even what they looked like: “My neighbor had never met a Jew before. The first time she met me, she looked at me. I asked, ‘Is there something wrong?’ She said, ‘Well, you don’t have any horns.’” Bea smiled as she retold this story. “I asked, ‘Why are you saying that?’, and she replied, ‘Well, the Moses in Westminster Abbey [in London] has horns.’ I started laughing because I’ve been to Westminster Abbey, and I’ve seen the statue. I replied, ‘Those are not horns, those are rays of sunshine’” (Interview Karp). That conversation, as well as her husband, and the Eichmann Trial had prompted Bea to tell her story.
In 1961, the Israeli government captured, investigated, tried, and sentenced to death Adolph Eichmann, one of Hitler’s high-ranking officers, who was in charge of operating and commanding Nazi troops to murder all Jewish people under Nazi occupation (Remember.org)[Read more about the trial]. The world watched the trial in which dozens of survivors recalled their close and dreadful encounters with Eichmann and their experiences during the Holocaust. The events of this trial made it all the way to the small town of O’Neal where one of Bea’s neighbors became intrigued to learn more about the Holocaust. That neighbor, who was also a teacher at the local school, asked Bea if she would be willing to tell her story to the teachers during a Teachers’ Tea. Bea accepted her friend’s invitation. She had been working hard at being more outgoing and