Last Friday, I had the good fortune to hear the 94 year old Selma van der Perre speak about her experiences as a Jewish woman during the Holocaust and a survivor of Ravensbruck Concentration Camp. I braced myself for difficult stories and a somber afternoon, but what appeared on stage was an absolute spitfire of a woman who radiated hope, energy, and life abundant. I fell in love with Selma the minute she walked on stage–with a cane and on the arm of a younger person, wearing a neat suit, chic French scarf, and white beret.
She was chic, sharp, and a delight in every way. Some of the stories she had to tell made your blood run cold and your stomach clench into a knot, but everything about her being shone bright and radiated hope.
She was a young woman growing up in the Netherlands when the Nazis came to power. Her family was pulled apart, her father died in Auschwitz, and she became a courier with the Dutch resistance, taking a false identity and dodging the authorities while helping the cause. Eventually, she was caught and sent to prison, then transferred to Ravensbruck.
Selma could, and eagerly would, tell you stories all day about those years–each story more fascinating than the last, and many of them heart-wrenching. They are her stories to tell, and I couldn’t do them justice, so I won’t try to re-present them here. You may use this link to hear her tell some of her stories in her own words (from a BBC program on Ravensbruck– “Surviving Ravensbruck”). I promise you that it is well worth your time.
What I will tell you is how she answered a question about what gave her the strength to go on and to not give up, although she was quite ill and weak much of the time. She answered this very simply, taking little personal credit. Yes, what she did in the resistance was dangerous, but it was a difficult time and she wanted to do her part and help people. And besides that, she didn’t want to give the Nazis the satisfaction of crumbling– she wanted to “stick it to them.”
Even as a factory worker in Ravensbruck work camp, she and her colleagues would sabotage the gas masks they manufactured for the Third Reich, not screwing them together properly. Anything they could do to undermine their captors, they did. And they showed each other kindness–she was adamant that kindness from other inmates (and even a prison guard early on–a guard who was later incarcerated and killed for her part in helping inmates) kept her going during tenuous times.
There are very few survivors of the concentration camps still around, and, like Selma, they have reached a ripe age. It is so important that we hear their stories whenever and wherever we get the chance. I very nearly missed hearing her talk. I had a busy day Friday and her talk wasn’t at a convenient time for me . . . and, as you can imagine, I felt a little discomfort about going. It was a beautiful, sunny Friday afternoon, and the Holocaust is a heavy, horrific topic which anyone might, understandably, want to avoid. But that would have been a mistake.
When I left the theater and stepped back into the bright afternoon, I was uplifted. The horror of the history had been laid out unquestionably in her talk–I flinched time and again as she told stories– but, I tell you this, the lesson was transformed in the person of Selma van der Perre. “This cannot happen again,” she said, “we must be very aware of such things going on still in our world.” Her message was clear and serious, but in her capable hands it was uplifting and resilient. Our lights should all shine so bright.
Thank you, Selma van der Perre.
17 thoughts on “Surviving the Holocaust: Selma van der Perre”
What an incredible experience to hear such an inspiring lady speak.
It was fantastic, and I think she enjoyed herself too– she seems to have a real sense of purpose in telling her story and sharing the history, and she is, for sure, a natural story teller.
I have met a few holocaust survivors and it never fails to bring shock and hope to humankind. It is so important that we listen to their stories. Thank you for sharing
I’ll make a point of following the link to that BBC programme. Thank you. You seem to have had an inspiring and moving afternoon.
Very much so. She was a force of nature. I hope you enjoy the BBC interview.
Sounds an inspirational lady – I will definitely check out your link thanks for sharing.
You’re quite welcome. Thanks for reading, and I hope you enjoy the BBC interview with Mrs. van der Perre.
Great post – so good of you to share this. Corrie ten Boom was another brave Dutch woman and wrote a terrific book – “The Hiding Placd” – about her experience. And Viktor Frankl attests to the kindness and humanity he experienced in “Man’a Search for Meaning”. Astonishing stories from the horror that was the Holocaust.
Funny you should mention that. Corrie ten Boom was at Ravensbruck at the same time that Selma van der Perre was there.
What an incredible experience to be able to hear someone like her speak. I’ve listened to a number of interviews with survivors of the Holocaust, and it never has failed to amaze me how they have so much hope and joy in light of what they went through. Really inspiring!
It was a great experience–so glad I went. Thanks for reading!
What an amazing woman! Thank you for sharing your experience.
Susan A Eames at
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You are welcome. She was incredible–I wish there had been more time to hear her stories and ask questions.
Thank you for letting others hear a bit of what she said.
My pleasure. She was lovely.
Just to update this her autobiography is a best seller in Holland the UK edition may arrive September with USA & other territories to follow
Wow– great tip. Thank you! I’ll keep a lookout for it.