Holocaust survivor joins peace voyage into troubled waters

Wed, Aug 6, 2008, 01:00

Hedy Epstein's devotion to Palestinians has often put her in danger, writes Michael Jansenin Nicosia.

HOLOCAUST SURVIVOR Hedy Epstein is set to sail this weekend into the troubled waters off Gaza in a bid by peace activists to break Israel's siege of the strip.

Bemused and embarrassed by all the attention she is receiving from the media, the 83-year-old grandmother from St Louis says she is just an ordinary member of the group of 40 volunteers from 17 countries signed up for the voyage.

Hedy was born in 1924 in the Black Forest village of Kippenheim. "When Hitler came to power in 1933, I was a little past eight years old. My parents very quickly realised that under this regime it was not a place to raise a family and so they tried to get out of Germany. While they were ready to go almost anywhere, they were not prepared to go to Palestine. And why? Because they were anti-Zionists. 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," she said.

Her parents packed suitcases in readiness for flight but eventually the cases were emptied. On the night of November 10th, 1938, Crystal Night, Hitler's thugs smashed Jewish shops and attacked Jews in Germany and Austria. Hedy's father was sent to the Dachau concentration camp. When he returned home, her parents took the decision that one member of the family should leave if possible. On May 18th, 1939, Hedy left with 500 Jewish children on special trains known as Kindertransport; the youngest was six months, the oldest 17. She was 14; her number was 5,580.

England took in 10,000 children in the nine months preceding the war. "Some were placed in foster homes, others in institutions, the eldest went to work." Her parents had promised they would see each other again soon. "Many children who boarded the trains never did see their parents again." Hers died in Auschwitz in 1942.

Hedy's new life in England was far from rosy. Her first foster family starved her on toast and tea for 10 weeks. She chewed grass and leaves from the back garden for a little nourishment. Her second, poorer, foster family plied her with food but after her 16th birthday in mid-August 1940, she had to quit school and go to work. She joined a movement of leftist Jewish youth determined to return to Germany after the war and teach Germans democratic principles. "This was the foundation of my political education which still stands me in good stead today," she said. In 1945 she got a job in Germany with the US authority as a censor and researcher assembling evidence for the trials of doctors accused of conducting experiments on prisoners.

"I [went] to the United States [in 1948] about the same time that Israel became a state. I had mixed feelings. 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."

A new immigrant to the US, she put "Israel and Palestine on the back burner . . . and they remained there for a very long time". She worked with refugees in New York City before going west to Minneapolis, where she attended university and met her husband. She raised her children in St Louis and in the 1970s returned to university where she earned BA and MA degrees in urban affairs.

"In 1982 I received what you might call 'a wake-up call'. I learned about the massacres in the Sabra and Chatila camps [in Beirut during Israel's invasion]. The more I found out, the more horrified . . . I became."

She began to state her opposition to Israel's policies and practices. In 2001 she established a St Louis chapter of the anti-occupation Women in Black movement. In December 2003 she made her first visit to the Palestinian territories. Since then she has travelled there every year on protest missions. She has been met with rubber coated iron balls, water canon, and gas. At Ben Gurion airport she was held for five hours and the Israeli police stripped her and conducted an invasive body search.

While she has visited the West Bank often, she has never been to Gaza. But she cannot predict what Israel will do when the blockade-running boats approach the coast. "With this voyage, I hope to fulfil one of Judaism's most basic values: not to stand idly by when people are dying from starvation, disease and lack of medical treatment."