“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.
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.”
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 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 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