Monthly Archives: May 2016

Remembering Hedy Epstein

“If we don’t try to make a difference, if we don’t speak up, if we don’t try to right the wrong that we see, we become complicit. I don’t want to be guilty of not trying my best to make a difference.”

~ Hedy Epstein, August 15th, 1924 – May 26th, 2016.

Hedy Epstein.  Source, Patch.

We lost a tremendous piece of humanity today. Hedy Epstein passed peacefully from this life surrounded by family and loved ones at her home in St. Louis, Missouri. She was 91.

Hedy was born in Germany on the 15th of August, 1924. And were it not for what she described as her mother and father’s “unselfish love” in arranging her escape from the Nazis by Kindertransport, she would have likely perished in a concentration camp as they did. Hedy was Jewish, and her parents, grand parents, and most of her family did not survive the Holocaust.

She said of this experience:

“Before I left Germany on a Kindertransport to England, my parents gave me many admonitions, to be good, to be honest, always ending with “We will see each other again soon.” I believed that we would see each other again soon, whether my parents believed that, I will never know. My parents and I corresponded directly with each other until England declared war on Germany on September 3, 1939. Then it was no longer possible to correspond directly with each other. Instead we exchanged 25 word messages through the Red Cross.

After my parents were sent to the camps in Vichy France, we could correspond directly with each other again. However, my parents were allowed only to write one page, per person, per week. I could write as much and as often as I wanted to. My parents never wrote about the horrible conditions under which they were forced to “exist,” I learned about that only after the war was over.

Thinking back on that time in England, I was a very sad little girl, not allowing myself to really get in touch with my feelings and fears. As I told you, each of my parents in their last letters to me before their final deportation (to Auschwitz), each of them wrote: “It will probably be a long time before you hear from me again”

How long is a long time? A week, a month, a year, ten years! Since I wanted so very much to be reunited with my parents again, I kept on telling myself: “A long time is not over yet, I have to wait some more”. I was in denial. I was not able to accept the inevitable, my parents’ demise. That was really a psychological game I played with myself, it was a way for me to survive, a self-preservation mechanism.

It was not until September 1980, when I visited Auschwitz and stood on the place, called “Die Rampe” (The ramp), where the cattle cars arrived in the 1940s, the people were forced to get out and Dr. Mengele and his cohorts made a selection as to who will live and who will die (in the gas chambers), that I was able to accept the fact that my parents and other family members did not survive. That is a very long time to be in denial. Perhaps the denial was in lieu of the usual mourning process.”

Hedy and her family, Germany, 1937.  Photo source, hedyepstein.com.
After the war Hedy moved to the United States and it was there that she devoted her entire life to fighting injustice. She fought for women’s reproductive choice and fair housing and employment for all. And she became a leading voice against the war in Vietnam and the bombing of Cambodia.

What Hedy will perhaps be remembered for most is her tireless commitment to Palestinian human rights and self determination. She traveled to Israel and the West Bank. And even though she suffered intimidation and degrading searches by Israeli security at Ben Gurion Airport in Tel Aviv, she traveled there several times more and witnessed the brutality of the decades long occupation firsthand. She explained why in an interview:

“I have gone back because it is the right thing for me to do; to witness and to let the Palestinians know there are some people who care enough to come back and stand with them in their struggle against Israel’s occupation. Palestinians have asked me upon my return home, to tell the American people what I have seen and experienced, because the American people don’t know what is happening, because the media does not inform them. I made a commitment to do so and have taken every opportunity to honor this commitment.

I feel I must continue to be a moral voice, must continue to have the courage to take a public stand against Israel’s crimes against humanity and the misinterpretations provided by the media. Israel would not be able to carry out its crimes against humanity without the United States, the world, permitting it to do so and the mass media, which, with few exceptions, dehumanizes Palestinians and instills fear, ignorance and loathing of them and their culture.

Having met Palestinians, experienced their hospitality, warmth, dignity and even humor, it is incumbent upon me to bring their voices, their experiences to anyone who will listen to me, to bear witness about the Wall, the land confiscations, the demolished homes, the violation of water rights, the restrictions of freedom of movement. The future of peace cannot be awaited passively, but rather from commitments and struggles for justice. There is no peace without justice.”

Hedy Epstein in Bilin, Occupied West Bank, Palestine.  Photo source, Middle East Monitor.Hedy Epstein on the right.  Cairo, Egypt-2010 Gaza Freedom March.Hedy became involved in Jewish Voice for Peace and used her influence to raise awareness of this issue throughout most of her life. And her tremendous contribution to this cause cannot be overstated. Age was never a barrier to her determination for human rights and social justice either. She was arrested at a peaceful protest in Ferguson, Missouri, following the police killing of unarmed black teenager, Michael Brown. She had just celebrated her 90th birthday three days earlier.

Hedy Epstein arrested.  Photo source, Google.Hedy came from a corridor of history marked by the misery of organized cruelty and mass genocide. But she transformed her experience into a beacon of resistance for all people against oppression and brutality. Her courage will be greatly missed, but her legacy will endure in the hearts of all who were graced by her humanity.

Kenn Orphan  2016

 

Grieving in Silence

When I was in my early twenties I never thought that in my lifetime I would see the death of the Great Barrier Reef and scores of other coral reefs around the world.  I never thought I would see the temperature of the North Pole reach 50 degrees Fahrenheit above normal, or gigantic nation-sized shelves of ice simply break off and fall into the sea in Antarctica.  I never thought I would read about scores of species dying en masse, washing up on shores, or going extinct every single day.   I never thought that plastic in the seas would outweigh marine life by mid century, or huge swaths of forest succumb to pine beetles and blight.  Now twenty years on I have witnessed all of that and more, and most of it has happened in just the last few years. I often find myself being overwhelmed by an enormous tide of grief that envelopes my entire being; and it doesn’t countenance being ignored.  But I live within a society that values denial over truth.  And lately I have begun to relate more to Edvard Munch’s iconic painting “The Scream.” It seems to me to be the perfect emblem of our times, an anthem of despair silenced by the absurdity of the status quo.   I realize that many of us feel this deep sense of sorrowful terror; but many more can do little more than cry out in that private, interior space that our culture has consigned us to.
The Scream by Edvard Munch.Many traditions have a public means for displaying private grief.   Years ago, in Europe and in the Americas, those who were mourning the death of a loved one announced their grief to others by wearing a piece of black cloth around their arm or by placing a black wreath upon their front doors. Today much of that has been rejected as being too morbid or depressing Perhaps part of this normalization is due to our evolutionary heritage; but certainly the distractions of our industrialized culture have numbed most of our senses and reinforced the myth of our separateness from the natural world.  How else can the absence of outrage or public lamentation regarding the unfolding ecocide be explained?

I hope to extract myself as much as possible from the din of industrial civilization.  But for now I, like almost everyone else I know, go about my day in the routine that has been assigned to me by society.  I get up in the morning, take the drugs that keep my blood pressure in check, eat something processed, wash up and merge into the busy and confining passages that define modernity.  Living within this labyrinth discourages any introspection. There simply isn’t enough time, ever.  Thoughts about our place in the universe, or our mortality, or the meaning of it all are summarily dismissed in this culture.  In the media or in popular entertainment this subject is usually only included as a form of comic relief.  “What is the meaning of life?” has become the crux of jokes.  We are chided or ridiculed for thinking too much and sent to a cubicle to perform as a useful cog in the machine of industry; and then to another cubicle to shop for items we are told we need or that will “enhance” our lives, and then to a cubicle that we are charged money to live in and sit in front of yet another cubicle that tells us what to think, how to feel, and what is important.

Cubicles via The Repetitive Swan.This is the only way that it can all work.  It is the only way that the natural world can be compartmentalized and commodified.  It is the only way that the killing ideologies of militarism, nationalism and capitalism can go unquestioned.  Now, of course, we can see it has worked all too well as we march head long into extinction with nary a concern.  But the tower of mythology that supports every aspect of industrial civilization is beginning to crumble beneath the weight of its own hubris and apathetic indulgences.  We ignored the planet’s boundaries, and now those boundaries are closing in on us fast.

The world will look very different in just a mere decade or so.  This is not a prophetic declaration, it is a certainty that is easy to demonstrate.  Our leaders, when they are not in outright denial, reinforce the absurd notion that we still have plenty of time to stop climate change even as it is abruptly shifting before our eyes.  And sustainability is nothing more than a lie of consumer capitalism.  What, after all, is worth sustaining?  A societal model that requires an economy that must grow regardless of the ecological and social costs?  Or that tolerates mass species extinction?  Or that allows for endless military aggression to ensure a constant flow of minerals and fuel to produce objects which will end up in a landfill or in the ocean for eons?  If depression and neuroses are companions of cancer and heart disease in this model of sustainability, is this really worth preserving?

The stark truth is that there is little collective will to change the path we are currently on as a species.  Its trajectory is solidly towards collapse of the biosphere.  And even if monumental changes were implemented tomorrow by the powers that be it would not stop the seas from rising, or stop the process of ocean acidification, or resolve the plastic soup that churns at its center, or solve the never ending meltdown at Chernobyl or Fukushima, or prevent the release of methane from the seabed, or stave off famine for millions of people, and bring back thousands of species now gone forever.

Greetings from California by Joe Webb.I realize that this entire essay is antithetical to the zeitgeist of interminable optimism that defines our age.  In truth, I gave up trying to fit into this model a long time ago when I saw it as merely a kind of collective psychosis.  I write because, selfishly, I must.  It is my silent scream outward from a dark, interior pain of alienation, frustration and sadness.  I am not looking for a magic elixir or a pharmaceutical or an intervention to medicate or block out this pain either.  I want to feel it because it exists and because this is a culture that I wish to separate myself from; and I think we must all feel it and show this publicly while we still have time.  I don’t think that doing any of this will spare us the calamities that appear to be waiting for us just down the road, but maybe it can help us reclaim a sense of meaning to it all that has been robbed from us by an insipid, manic and brutal system of mindless consumption, and vacuous distraction.

I see what is unfolding and I cannot help but feel great sorrow.  My scream of anguish, though silent, can no longer be inward.  I am in mourning.  I grieve all that has been and will be lost.  And I will place a black wreath upon my door and wear a black cloth around my arm for all the world to see, not because I am brave, but because I simply cannot grieve in silence anymore.

Kenn Orphan  2016

On Being a Climate Migrant

When I first moved to San Diego twenty years ago I fell in love.  Blue skies, blue Pacific, lush, rolling hills of scrub oak and chaparral and warm sun most of the year. Back then the freeways did not seem to be full all day and night as they do now. People weren’t as aggressive towards each other either. I could walk along the beach alone and feel like I was the only one for miles; and the tide pools were brimming with life. The containment of urban sprawl was a cherished community value. The cost of living may have been high compared to many other places, but one could enjoy a very satisfying life even with a meager income.

San Diego Traffic. Photo from LA Times Blog.Now living here has become very costly, and enjoyment a rare luxury. The people seem perpetually hurried and harried. And so many of the hilltops have been scraped away for housing developments, shopping malls and industrial parks. Wildlife has been cordoned off into “preserves” and roadways lace the canyons and mesas. Make no mistake, I love California and will always consider it my home in many ways. But the state I knew only exists in memory. And now we are facing a megadrought in a place where the population is ballooning with seemingly few taking notice.

Suburban Sprawl in San Diego. Photo, Getty Images.So my partner and I decided a couple years ago that it was time to move on. We are collecting what we need and embracing our loved ones before we embark on a journey northward to the place of my ancestry and that I consider a home from my childhood, in what is shaping up to be the last epoch of human civilization as we know it.  I would like to carve out a small sanctuary in one of the few pristine places left on the planet. Is this hyperbolic? Am I only two cans of corn away from being an “end times prepper?”   I’m sure to many Americans I am being extreme. When I tell people that I am migrating from California because of abrupt climate change, and the ecological and societal collapse that will accompany it, I am often met with blank stares or eye rolls. I think this is because the reality of our dire circumstances has not yet hit home to most Americans who live in privileged, coastal cities. But to those of us who are paying attention the approaching maelstrom is undeniable.

San Bernadino Fires Getty

Homes fall to flash flooding in California. Source NBC News.Our planet has been warming, but this trend has taken leaps and bounds in the past few years with each one hotter than the last. Records are being shattered each month. For most of the world’s population calamity is not some distant risk factor. Water scarcity and famine now tower over hundreds of millions of people from Sudan to India to Malaysia and beyond like ravenous angels of death. Species extinction is accelerating across the globe as well. It is like watching a dystopic science fiction flick with no end of the chaos in sight.

Drought in India. Photo Source India Water Portal.

Rohingya Refugees Source The GuardianTo say that all of this is overwhelming is an understatement. But I think what is perhaps worse than this is living in the heart of a culture where grief is ridiculed and that is defined by a collective disconnect from the unfolding reality of ecocide. The sham that is American democracy is also demoralizing, especially when given the current spectacle we are seeing in the Presidential election cycle. And with climate change appearing to accelerate, the prospect of living in a divisive, burgeoning police state is terrifying to say the least. Dying empires cast long shadows of cruel absurdity as they unravel. And if one lingers too long in its darkness the soul begins to wither and harden.

Bread and Circuses Source International TimesSo I am declaring myself a climate migrant. But I am lucky. I do not have to clamber on to shoddy boats and risk drowning, or take a perilous journey on foot across a parched and dangerous land. I see what is ahead and I have the privilege of fleeing from a lot of it. This isn’t much consolation, though. Only a smug sociopath would get satisfaction with being right in this instance. For anyone with a conscience there is no joy in telling people “I told you so” when faced with their suffering and sorrow, even if you have been largely ignored or dismissed as over the top for years. Some can do this with ease. They can point jagged, scornful fingers at the smoker who is now dying from lung cancer, and feel somehow justified in doing so even as such callousness reduces their own humanity to ashes. I believe that the depth of ones character is measured in the compassion one has for other beings; and I haven’t shed near enough tears to measure up to the tremendous suffering of our planet and all of its inhabitants.

Young Buck On The Second Peninsula Lunenburg Nova Scotia is a photograph by William OBrien.

Giants Lake Wilderness, Nova Scotia. Source, The Chronicle Herald.I hope that this move will at least demonstrate just how serious and dire I think things really are. Maybe it will cause some to sit up and pay attention. I realize that most people do not have the resources to take bold steps like this; and I am not attempting to cast myself as a martyr. I do not possess the spiritual credentials to warrant such a distinction anyway. But I think if more of us take steps, big or small, that shun mindless consumerism and recognize the urgent state we are all in, we may have a chance of building communities of compassionate souls who cherish each other and hold sacred this beautiful planet while we still have time left to do so.  I can only hope it will.

Kenn Orphan  2016