Hedy Epstein, Rights Activist and Holocaust Survivor, Dies at 91
When the police ordered the protesters to leave, nine refused. And so it came to pass that Hedy Epstein, wearing a black T-shirt with the words “Stay Human” printed in white letters, was handcuffed, taken to a nearby substation and charged with “failure to disperse.”
She had turned 90 three days earlier.
“I really didn’t think about being arrested or doing anything like that,” Ms. Epstein told Newsweek after the confrontation in St. Louis. “I was just going to be somebody in the crowd. I guess maybe I was impulsive. Someone said, ‘Who is willing to be arrested if that happens?’ I said, ‘Yeah, I’m willing.’”
Ms. Epstein, a Holocaust survivor who spoke widely about the persecution of the Jews in Germany, and who spent most of her adult life working for a broad range of social justice movements, died on Thursday at her home in St. Louis. She was 91.
The cause was cancer, said Dianne Lee, a friend.
Ms. Epstein was born Hedwig Wachenheimer on Aug. 15, 1924, in Freiburg, Germany, and raised in nearby Kippenheim. Her father, Hugo, ran a dry-goods company founded by his grandfather. Her mother, the former Ella Eichel, was a homemaker.
After the Kristallnacht pogrom, Hedy was expelled from school. She returned home to see her house ransacked and her father being dragged away by the police. He spent four weeks in Dachau. After being released, he and his wife arranged for Hedy, their only child, to travel to England in 1939 on a Kindertransport train and ship.
“I was a terrible child,” Ms. Epstein told The St. Louis Post-Dispatch in 2000. “I resisted going away and accused my parents of having found me on the doorstep, left by Gypsies, and now wanting to get rid of me. I recognized later that they were giving me life.”
She was an interview subject in the Academy Award-winning 2000 documentary “Into the Arms of Strangers: Stories of the Kindertransport.”
Her parents were unable to find sponsors in the United States and, as secular, anti-Zionist Jews, had no desire to emigrate to Palestine. “They did not wish to live in a country that was run by Jews and for Jews only,” Ms. Epstein told The Jerusalem Post in 2014.
Both her parents died in Auschwitz, and nearly all her aunts, uncles and cousins perished in the camps. In a final postcard sent from a transit camp in southwestern France in 1942, her mother wrote that she was being sent east. She ended with, “Sending you a final goodbye.”
Hedy was raised by foster parents in London and left school at 16 to work in a munitions plant. In 1945, she returned to Germany, where she was a translator and researcher with the Allied War Crimes Tribunal at theNuremberg “Doctors Trial.”
She immigrated to the United States in 1948 and began working for the New York Association for New Americans, an agency that brought Holocaust survivors to the United States. Two years later, feeling restless, she moved to St. Paul, a city she picked at random, where she worked on behalf of refugees.
She met and married Arnold Epstein, a physicist with Monsanto, which transferred him to St. Louis in 1969. He died in 1977. She is survived by their son, Howard, and two granddaughters.
In St. Louis, her passive opposition to the Vietnam War became active with the 1970 bombing campaign in Cambodia, a political awakening that found expression on several fronts. She began working with the local chapter of Freedom of Residence, a fair-housing organization, and served as the chapter’s executive director in the mid-1970s. She found work as a paralegal at Chackes & Hoare, a law firm specializing in employment discrimination law.
“I’m Jewish and I was born in Germany, so I think I can understand what it feels like to be African-American in this country,” she told Newsweek in 2014. “I was a child living under the Nazi regime, and I lived in a village, so everybody knew who I was and that I was Jewish. I remember feeling uncomfortable walking down the street, seeing people cross to the other side of the street, or seeing a Nazi I didn’t want to pass by.”
After the massacre of Palestinians in the Sabra and Shatila refugee camps in Lebanon in 1982, Ms. Epstein channeled her energies into the Palestinian cause. She helped found the St. Louis chapters of the Palestine Solidarity Committee and Jewish Voice for Peace.
Beginning in 2003, she traveled several times to the West Bank as a volunteer with the International Solidarity Movement. In the West Bank village of Bil’in, near Ramallah, she was tear-gassed while demonstrating against the Israeli occupation and suffered damage to her hearing when sound bombs went off.
She became an impassioned supporter of the Free Gaza Movement and in 2011 was aboard the ship the Audacity of Hope in a flotilla attempting to break the Israeli blockade of the Gaza Strip.
“I can’t solve every problem — I probably can’t solve any problem, but I have to do whatever it is possible for me to do,” she told Amy Goodman of the radio program “Democracy Now!” in 2014. “I just cannot stand idly by, because if I did — anyone that stands idly by becomes complicit in what is going on.”
Her 1999 memoir, written in German and published in Germany, was titled “Erinnern Ist Nicht Genug” (“Remembering Is Not Enough”).
Ms. Epstein often addressed audiences at schools and community events about the Holocaust. Her talks concluded with an admonition: “Remember the past, don’t hate, don’t be a bystander.”
An obituary on Sunday about the political activist Hedy Epstein misstated part of the name of an organization for which she worked. It was Freedom of Residence, not Freedom of Resistance.