Hedy Epstein was born to Jewish parents on August 15, 1924 in Freiburg, Germany, and was raised in nearby Kippenheim. After Adolf Hitler came to power in January 1933, Epstein’s parents tried for years to leave the country as a family, but they were unsuccessful due to emigration restrictions in numerous nations around the world. Finally, the parents found a way to enlist Hedy in the Children’s Transport, a program that ferried at least 7,500 German and Austrian Jewish youngsters to England between December 1938 and the beginning of World War II in September 1939. Epstein never again saw her parents, who died in a concentration camp at Auschwitz. The girl was subsequently raised by foster parents in London.
Epstein left school at age 16 to work in a munitions plant. Once WWII was over in 1945, she returned to Germany to work for the American government’s Civil Censorship Division. Later, she was employed as a researcher and translator at the Nuremberg Medical Trial, which adjudicated the cases of doctors who allegedly had performed barbaric experiments on concentration-camp inmates.
In May 1948 Epstein immigrated to the United States, settling first in New York City, where she worked for the New York Association for New Americans, an agency that brought Holocaust survivors to the United States. Two years later, Epstein moved to St. Paul, Minnesota, where she worked on behalf of refugees. And then, in the early 1960s, Epstein moved to St. Louis – where she went on to become an activist for such causes as the anti-Vietnam War movement, housing integration, and abortion rights. In the ’60s and early ’70s, Epstein served as a volunteer with the Greater St. Louis chapter of “Freedom of Residence” (FoR), a nonprofit organization that promoted fair housing laws. In the mid-1970s, she became FoR’s executive director.
In 1982, Epstein became involved with activism on behalf of the Palestinian cause.
During the ’80s as well, Epstein was employed as a paralegal for Chackes and Hoare, a law firm specializing in employment discrimination cases. Moreover, she was active in protests charging that U.S. immigration policies were too restrictive.
In the late 1980s, Epstein supported the Marxist Sandinista government of Nicaragua, which was engaged in a civil war against the U.S.-backed Contra rebels. She traveled to Nicaragua and Guatemala as a member of a Witness for Peace delegation in 1989. And upon returning to the U.S., Epstein published a May 1, 1989 column for the St. Louis Post-Dispatch titled “Where America is the Enemy.”
In February 1992, Epstein and activist Dick Gregory chained themselves to the door of the Federal Courthouse in East St. Louis, as an act of protest against U.S. policies vis-a-vis Haitian refugees.
In April 1993, Epstein and Peace and Conflict Studies professor Patrick Coy co-published an article titled “Putting the Government on Probation,” written in defense of a man who – as an act of protest against government policies of which he disapproved – had refused to pay his taxes. In the article, Epstein and Coy condemned “U.S. attacks on Grenada, Libya, Panama and Iraq” as actions that had “violated the U.N. and Nuremberg charters.”
In October 1997, Epstein penned a letter to the St. Louis Post-Dispatch that was published under the heading, “Nuclear Danger.” “This month,” she wrote, “the United States plans to send 72 pounds of plutonium into space on the Cassini aircraft. The ultimate goal of this is to have nuclear-powered battle stations in outer space. However, we would need full all-out war to test these reactors…. Even a 1 percent failure rate of a nuclear reactor would be catastrophic to the entire world as radiation comes raining down. It would be like Chernobyl falling out of the sky.” As it turned out, Epstein was completely misinformed about the entire matter. Cassini was not an “aircraft,” but rather, a space probe whose purpose was to photograph Saturn and its moons. Nor was it equipped with a “reactor”; it had a nuclear-powered thermal generator that had no possibility of ever returning to earth.
In the late 1990s, Epstein served as a co-chair of the Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom (WILPF).
In 2001 Epstein founded the St. Louis chapter of Women In Black (WIB), an organization whose members held weekly public vigils protesting the deaths of Palestinians who had lost their lives as a result of what WIB characterized as Israel’s brutal occupation of the West Bank and (previously) Gaza. Epstein also founded the St. Louis chapters of the Palestine Solidarity Committee and Jewish Voice for Peace.
In September 2002, Epstein accused U.S. President George W. Bush of “using war to divert people’s attention from the economy just as Hitler had.”
In 2002 as well, Epstein became a lecturer with the Wheels of Justice Tour, which was sponsored by the International Solidarity Movement (ISM), the Middle East Children’s Alliance, and other self-identified “peace groups.” In 2003 she traveled to the West Bank to work with ISM. The following year, Epstein returned to the West Bank with a group called Women of a Certain Age, again to demonstrate against Israeli policies vis-a-vis the Palestinians.
Also in the early 2000s, Epstein became affiliated with the American Friends Service Committee. Moreover, she was active in speaking out against Israel’s alleged wrongdoings, addressing audiences of schoolchildren, college students, and adults in numerous venues across the United States and Europe.
Epstein at one time was a member of the speakers bureau of the St. Louis Holocaust Museum and Learning Center (HMLC). But after she began working with the radical ISM, the HMLC firmly distanced itself from Epstein, underscoring the fact that it could no longer support her activities and positions.
Between 2003 and 2010, Epstein visited the West Bank five times in order to “witness the facts [of Israeli oppression] on the ground.” She also participated in several demonstrations opposing:
In her public speeches, Epstein routinely maintained that Israel treated the Palestinians in a manner similar to how the Nazis of yesteryear had treated the Jews. “I feel anger,” said Epstein on one occasion. “I feel that those [Jews] who were persecuted and their descendants have become the persecutors. It seems that is the lesson they have learned from the Holocaust.” In 2004, Epstein delivered a speech at an Islamic community center titled “Surviving the Holocaust: Witnessing History Repeated.”
Epstein often likened modern-day anti-Israel demonstrations to the anti-war and civil-rights protests that had taken place in the U.S. during the 1960s and ’70s. For example, in February 2004 she said:
During a speaking engagement at UC Berkeley in October 2004 – when the Second Intifada was still in high gear – Epstein was asked how she felt about the Palestinian practice of suicide bombing. She replied:
“… [W]hile I don’t condone suicide bombing – with every fiber of my body I’m opposed to any kind of terrorism — suicide bombing or whatever. But at the same time I’m trying, always trying to put myself in the shoes of another person, try to understand where he or she is coming from. And, and again I want to stress I’m totally opposed to suicide bombing. But I can understand why somebody might do that. Because when everything has been taken away from them and the only decision that is left to this person who may not know whether he’s going to live the next day is to decide when he or she is going to die and then straps some bombs or whatever around his or her waist and go to Israel and take with– as he takes his life, he takes the lives of many other innocent people, women, children, et cetera.”
In August 2008, Epstein was slated to be a passenger aboard a Free Gaza Movement (FGM) ship destined for the seaport in Hamas-controlled Gaza, but she had to cancel her participation due to poor health. Epstein was again prepared to participate in an FGM voyage in June 2009, but canceled after she was physically assaulted the day before the scheduled departure. And in May 2010, Epstein was slated to take part in an FGM flotilla once again, but ultimately decided at the last moment to withdraw. (That flotilla included the Mavi Marmara, a ship laden with armed activists and terrorists who infamously became involved in a violent, deadly conflict with Israeli commandos. For details of that incident, click here.)
In June 2010, Epstein wrote that “the actions of the Israeli government and Israeli military, as they pertain to the Palestinians, are illegal and in violation of international laws.” She also accused Israel of “creating an immoral society.”
In late June 2011, Epstein was finally able to make a trip with FGM, traveling aboard the ship Audacity of Hope.
On August 17, 2014, Epstein was arrested while attempting to enter Missouri Governor Jay Nixon’s Saint Louis office to request a deescalation of police and National Guard intervention measures amid the riots that had broken out in response to a recent incident where a white police officer had shot and killed a young black man named Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri. In the aftermath of the incident, Epstein told The Independent that one of her main concerns was the fact that the Ferguson police were using tear gas and rubber bullets during the unrest. “From the beginning, they were inciting the demonstrators who were demonstrating peacefully to become violent so that the police can become more violent in return,” she said. “The police and the guards need to be pulled out and they need to leave it to the people there to sort out. As long as you have riot police and riot gear and military equipment and lethal weapons – that is not going to lead to peace. It has to stop, because more lives are going to be lost, more people will be injured and more property will be damaged. It accomplishes nothing.” Among Epstein’s additional remarks to the press were the following:
Epstein was a supporter of the Boycott, Divestment, & Sanctions (BDS) movement, a Hamas-inspired initiative aiming to use various forms of public protest, economic pressure, and court rulings to advance the Hamas agenda of permanently destroying Israel as a Jewish nation-state.
Epstein died of cancer on May 26, 2016.
Further Reading: “Hedy Epstein, Rights Activist and Holocaust Survivor, Dies at 91” (NY Times, 5-28-2016); “Hedy Epstein” (HedyEpstein.com); “Holocaust Survivor and Activist for Justice Hedy Epstein Dies at 91” (Mondoweiss.net, 5-26-2016); “Holocaust Survivor and Activist Hedy Epstein Passes at 91” (The St. Louis American, 5-27-2016); “Americans Are Joining Flotilla to Protest Israeli Blockade” (NY Times, 6-1-2011); “Marquette’s Manresa: Attacking Israel, Defending Terrorism” (Marquette Warrior, 9-10-2005, re: Epstein’s support for Sandinistas in late 1980s, protest at East St. Louis Federal Courthouse in 1992, article co-authored with Patrick Coy in April 1993, letter on “Nuclear Danger” in October 1997, Epstein’s status as WILPF co-chair in late 1990s, accusation against President Bush in September 2002, speech in 2004 likening Israel to Nazi Germany); “The Hedy Epstein Lecture at U.C. Berkeley on October 19, 2004” (ZombieTime.com); “Remembering Is Not Enough: Interview with Hedy Epstein” (Socialist Worker, 6-8-2010); “Hedy Epstein, 90-Year-Old Holocaust Survivor Speaks after Her Arrest [in Ferguson]” (Independent, 8-19-2014).