Annette van de Kamp-Wright
“I was born Beate Stern in Lauterbach, Germany, in 1932.”
This is how Bea Karp, who passed away Sunday March 3, 2019, began her story. For many decades, Bea Karp told that story to thousands of children and adults. Tuesday, March 5, we heard it one more time, as we said goodbye to a woman who left an indelible mark on our community. Bea’s was a story of tragedy and survival, a warning of what can happen when hate goes unchecked; it was also a story of hope, resilience and determination.
In 1961, long after the war had come to an end, Bea found herself living in O’Neill, where she, husband Robert Pappenheimer and their four daughters were the only Jews in town. The Eichmann trial dominated the headlines and Bea, who was taking the Carnegie course to help her with her shyness, was asked in class to talk about her childhood. Recognizing how powerful Bea’s story was, one of the teachers asked her to tell it to the other teachers.
“I didn’t want to,” Bea said in 2018, “I had only ever shared my memories with my husband. He convinced me by reminding me they weren’t teaching about the Holocaust in the schools. So I attended a teacher’s tea and shared my story—I ended up talking for an hour. Invitations began coming in after that and they haven’t stopped coming since.”
God put the words in her mouth, she said. But throughout the many years of speaking, Bea found her voice; it was a voice many of us were privileged to hear time and again. A voice that reminded us of the past and taught us lessons about the present.
Alan Potash, Jewish Federation of Omaha CEO, said:
“When I was younger, I knew Bea as either Nancy’s mom, or Mrs. Pappenheimer. Later, I knew her as one of Danny’s grandmothers. And currently as Bea. When I returned to Omaha to head the ADL/CRC office in 2006, Bea would stop in our offices on Tuesday afternoons (she loved the sing-a-longs at the Blumkin Home which took place on Tuesdays). After making the rounds in the office to talk to Beth or Donna or Linda, she would poke her head into my office and say, ‘I spoke to my sister Susie in Israel and we discussed….what do you think about this issue?’ We would chat for a few minutes and then she would say, ‘I am off to the sing-a-long.’ This exchange happened almost every Tuesday and when it didn’t, it was because she was out of town. After I moved from the ADL/CRC to the Federation office she would call to update me on what she and Susie had discussed.
There are some people who walk into the room and take up all the space with their ego. When Bea walked into the room, she brought humility, making space for as many who wanted to join in. Her presence anywhere and everywhere made a difference.
While standing outside at the cemetery with the wind chill dipping below zero, my first thought was this cold could not measure up to the challenges Bea experienced as a child. The next thought came from hearing Bea in my head – It’s not that cold.”
There are countless adjectives that can be used for Bea. Strong, resilient, inspiring and sometimes defiant. Gracious, loving and often extremely funny. But Bea wouldn’t like any of that, because as she so often reminded others: “It’s not about me.”
“There is a teaching in Jewish tradition,” Alan Potash said, “that the world is protected by 36 righteous people who don’t even know they are one of the 36. Through Bea’s presence, her work and teaching, the world has many more righteous people. In my mind, she was one of the 36.”
In 2014 Bea and her daughter Deborah Pappenheimer published My Broken Doll, about Bea’s experiences during the War. Soon after, it was adapted into a play, allowing even more students and adults to hear Bea’s story. During the first few performances, Bea would attend a question-and-answer session. Later, she recorded a voice-over to be played to audiences after watching scenes from the book acted out on stage. Those words should stay with us:
I learned from all of my many experiences. I learned how to cope with life no matter what happens and that you have two choices. One is to give up and say, ‘poor me.’ The other is to go on with your life and pick up the pieces. And that is exactly what I did. I immigrated to this country and became a proud citizen. I went to school and graduated, even though I had only one year of schooling. I met a loving husband, we built a beautiful life together and raised our beautiful children right here in Nebraska. Today, I have nine grandchildren and one great-grandchild. My sister Susie lives in Israel and I talk with her every Sunday on the phone.
For so many years I have shared my story with people in hope that it inspires others to be strong in the face of hardships and not to be amongst those who hate. You are the future of this country. I hope that when you see wrongdoing, you will be brave and take a stand. Stop prejudice of any kind. Prejudice and hatred lead to horrible things. You have the strength to carry on, though you may fall, and you have the power to stop hatred and make a difference. Go and make the world a better place to live.
Bea is survived by her sister Susie Phillips and her four daughters, Roxanne Pappenheimer (Mark), Jeany Soshnik (Ron), Deborah Pappenheimer (Art) and Nancy Kutler (Howard). She will be fondly remembered by her seven grandchildren, Danny, Michael, Leah, Rachel, Arielle, Ben and Sarah. Bea was also blessed with two great-grandchildren, George and Audrey, with another great-grandchild on the way.
Memorials may be sent to the Institute of Holocaust Education and the Anti-Defamation league, or to Beth El Synagogue.