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Holocaust Survivor and Palestine Advocate Hedy Epstein Dead at 91

Hedy Epstein (1924-2016) (Photo: Silvia Cattori)

Hedy Epstein (1924-2016) (Photo: Silvia Cattori)

Holocaust survivor and peace activist Hedy Epstein, who championed the cause of oppressed people from Palestine to Ferguson, died May 26 of illness at her home in St. Louis. She was 91 years old.

When she was 14 years old, Epstein escaped near certain death in her native Germany aboard the Kindertransport to Britain. Her parents weren’t so lucky; they both died, along with almost the rest of her entire family, at Auschwitz. She did not meekly cower in exile; as a war refugee in England she worked in munitions factories and joined a group of leftist German Jews dedicated to re-introducing democracy to their postwar homeland.

After the war, Epstein returned to occupied Germany and worked at the Nuremberg Medical Trial, where Nazi doctors who performed horrific and often deadly medical experiments on concentration camp victims were supposed to face justice, but were often spared and even hired by their American conquerors. She also unsuccessfully attempted to reunite with relatives, all but two of whom perished during the Holocaust.

In 1948, Epstein emigrated to the United States, first to New York, then Minneapolis—where she attended university and met her husband—and finally to St. Louis, where she raised her family and lived out the rest of her life. The year she left Europe for America was the same year that the modern state of Israel was declared in Palestine, following half a century of Zionist colonization and years of Jewish terrorism and ethnic cleansing that saw more than 700,000 indigenous Arabs expelled from their homes, never to return.

Even though she was Jewish and had lost her entire family to Hitler’s Holocaust, Epstein was far from thrilled by the creation of the new Jewish state.

“I had mixed feelings,” she told the Irish Times in 2008. “On one hand I was very happy that there was a place for people to go who survived the Holocaust and had no place to go. But on the other hand, I remembered my parents were ardent anti-Zionists and I was afraid no good would come of it.”

Indeed, her parents’ anti-Zionism may have cost them their lives. Although few countries were willing to accept Jewish refugees as the horrors of the Holocaust accelerated, Ella and Hugo Wachenheimer refused to consider Palestine—which had recently become majority Jewish for the first time in more than 2,000 years due to European Zionist colonization—as an option.

“They were ready to go almost anywhere, they were not prepared to go to Palestine. And why? Because they were anti-Zionists,” explained Epstein. “I really didn’t understand fully at the time what it means to be a Zionist or an anti- Zionist. But if my parents were anti-Zionist, then I’m an anti-Zionist.”

Although she was a lifelong activist, championing a variety of human rights, social justice and anti-war causes, it wasn’t until 1982, when Israeli-backed Lebanese Christian militias massacred as many as 3,000 innocent civilians in the Sabra and Shatila refugee camps, that she began actively opposing Israel’s policies and actions. The sheer horror of the massacres—women and girls were raped before being executed and pregnant women were cut open, their fetuses torn out and thrown on garbage piles with other babies and small children—spurred her to act.

“In 1982 I received what you might call ‘a wake-up call,'” she told the Irish Times. “The more I found out, the more horrified I became.”

In 2001, Epstein founded a St. Louis chapter of the anti-occupation Women in Black movement, and in 2003 she made the first of five visits to the illegally-occupied West Bank.

“I was not prepared for the horrors I saw,” she told Counterpunch in 2007. “When I stood next to that terrible 25-foot-high cement wall that Israel has built, separating Palestinian from Palestinian, I thought, My God, is this what Jews are doing, the Jews that were forced behind walls, they are building a wall, and putting Palestinians behind that wall, and in the process destroying Palestinian buildings, homes, wells, but never hope.”

Prominent international observers, including the Nobel peace laureates Jimmy Carter, Desmond Tutu and Mired Maguire, as well as the late former Israeli cabinet minister Shulamit Aloni, have all accused Israel of practicing apartheid by separating Jews from Arabs and building or expanding illegal Jews-only settler colonies on occupied Palestinian land. Some, including former UN human rights official Richard Falk—an American Jew, have even accused Israel of ethnic cleansing. But there is scant criticism of Israel’s actions in the United States, where aspiring and elected leaders know that showing even the slightest sympathy toward the plight of Palestinians is the third rail of politics and where the Zionist lobby wields tremendous power over politicians and the media.

Epstein often decried American Jews “for whom Israel is always the victim, and the Palestinians are always the terrorists.”

“They don’t really understand, they don’t really ask questions, and they don’t really know what is truly going on,” she told Counterpunch.

Epstein was an active member of the International Solidarity Movement (ISM), whose members including Rachel Corrie and Tom Hurndall were killed while working to stop Israeli human rights violations, as well as the Free Gaza Movement. She also co-founded the St. Louis Palestine Solidarity Committee and the St. Louis chapter of Jewish Voice for Peace. In 2011, she was part of Gaza Freedom Flotilla II, which attempted to deliver desperately-needed humanitarian supplies to the besieged Palestinian enclave after Israeli forces killed 9 activists aboard an earlier aid flotilla.

Epstein’s advocacy for Palestinian rights made her a reviled figure among many Zionists and their supporters. In Israel, she has been strip- and cavity-searched when entering the country and has braved live ammunition, rubber-coated steel bullets, tear gas and water cannons during pro-Palestinian protests. In America, security officers had to move in to protect her from a hostile audience at elite Stanford University. The Anti-Defamation League (ADL), a leading anti-discrimination group, has accused her of antisemitism for “com­paring the Israeli treat­ment of Pales­tini­ans to the Nazi treat­ment of Jews”—a comparison this reporter has also made.

Toward the end of her life, Epstein found herself on the front lines of the fight for justice in her own backyard. As the St. Louis suburb of Ferguson erupted in anger over the police shooting of unarmed black teen Michael Brown in the summer of 2014, Epstein, then 90 years old, was arrested for failing to disperse from a demonstration.

“I’ve been doing this since I was a teenager. I didn’t think I would have to do it when I was 90,” Epstein told The Nation as she was being hauled off in handcuffs. “We need to stand up today so that people won’t have to do this when they’re 90.”

As the Black Lives Matter movement gained worldwide attention, Epstein was an outspoken supporter. For her, it wasn’t so far from Palestine to Ferguson. Her personal motto was “remember the past, don’t hate, and don’t be a bystander,” and she lived her life accordingly. Although often despised by many of her own people, the lifelong warrior for human rights and justice will live on as a reminder that another more humane world is possible.

“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,” she said. “I don’t want to be guilty of not trying my best to make a difference.”

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