Holocaust Survivor Sails to the Gaza Strip
Hedy Epstein of St. Louis will be part of a group of boats sailing in protest of the Israeli blockade of Gaza.
Hedy Epstein, an 86-year-old Holocaust survivor, is having trouble packing her luggage. First, she packed too many clothes to fit in her suitcase, but then again she doesn't know for how long she will leave. Epstein has traveled several times throughout her life, first from Germany, escaping Adolf Hitler, to England. Then to New York and eventually St. Louis. This time, she is trying to travel light, for a boat trip to the Gaza Strip.
Epstein of St. Louis is one of 34 American passengers aboard the Audacity of Hope, as part of the Gaza Freedom Flotilla II that will be traveling to the Gaza Strip this week in protest of Israel's naval blockade of the Gaza Strip.
In an article about the 2011 flotilla, The New York Times reported on the first Gaza-bound flotilla one year ago. "Nine people in a flotilla of six boats were killed when Israeli commandos boarded a Turkish boat in international waters off the coast of Gaza," according to the Times. "The Israelis said their commandos were attacked and struck back in self-defense, but the Turks blamed the Israelis for using live ammunition."
This, however, will not deter Epstein from going.
"It's very easy and comfortable to sit here and say, 'Isn't that awful, what’s happening there. I wish someone would do something about it'," Epstein said. "It's not good enough. If I feel this way, I have to do something about it."
Epstein has been an activist for a number of human rights and social justice causes throughout her life, recently as an advocate for human rights in the Middle East. Epstein said she has seen many injustices in her lifetime, starting when she fled Nazi Germany.
Surviving The Holocaust
Epstein was born in 1924 in the village of Kippenheim, Germany. In 1933, when she was eight years old, Hitler took power and Epstein’s parents decided they were going to try to leave the country.
"They very quickly realized that staying in Germany under Hitler and being Jewish maybe was not the best combination to raise a family," Epstein said. "They were anxious to leave and became increasingly more desperate to get out anywhere in the world, didn’t matter where."
In 1939, Epstein was one of 10,000 Jewish children from Germany who traveled to England before the beginning of World War II. Epstein's parents could not go with her. They were eventually sent to concentration camps in Europe. While in England, Epstein received regular correspondence from her parents who never told her of their suffering.
On September 1942, Epstein received one last postcard.
"Traveling to the east ... Sending you a final goodbye," the postcard read.
Her parents had been sent to Auschwitz, and Epstein never again heard from them.
Epstein came to New York to live with relatives in 1948, the same year Israel declared its independence. Epstein said at the time she had mixed feelings about Israel.
"On one hand I was glad there was a place for survivors of the Holocaust to go to, because they either couldn't or chose not to go back to where they came from," Epstein said. "But on the other hand, I was afraid that somewhere down the road, no good would come of it."
Epstein said for many years she did not give much thought to Israel.
"I was new to the United States, had new things to learn and so Israel and Palestine were on the back burner of my interests and remained there for a long time," Epstein said.
Over the years, Epstein worked in a variety of jobs. She was also an activist for different causes such as fair housing, abortion rights, and antiwar activities. In 1982, Epstein said she got a "wake up call," about Israel when she read about a massacre in two Palestinian refugee camps in Lebanon. According to the BBC, Lebanese Christian militia attacked the camps "under the watchful eye of their Israeli allies."
"As I learned more and understood more, I became increasingly disturbed about Israel's policies and practices," Epstein said. "I began to speak out against those policies and practices and speak out publicly."
Her pro-Palestinian activism came with a price.
Persona non grata
Epstein said she knows she is not welcome among the Jewish community in St. Louis because of her political beliefs.
"I am not part of the Jewish community around here," Epstein said. "To them, I am persona non grata because of my politics. They say I am a self-hating Jew, an anti-Semitic, a traitor."
Epstein said in spite of this, she does not feel left out or alone.
"You can't be friends with everybody," Epstein said. "You can't belong to every group."
A dangerous sail
Dianne Lee, a professor at St. Louis Community College - Forest Park, who like Epstein is a member of the St. Louis Instead of War Coalition, worries about her friend's safety.
"It's certainly dangerous," Lee said. "I think the people who are participating in the flotilla are very committed and very brave. I think they are going to be remember some day as being on the right side of this issue."
Epstein said she will not take with her anything that will remotely resemble or could be used as a weapon. In her luggage she'll carry a few nutrition bars, a toothbrush, a first-aid kit and a couple changes of clothes. In the boat, there will be letters of support for the Gaza Strip from people around the world .
"That will be our cargo," Epstein said. "That will be our sole cargo."
To track Epstein in her journey, you can follow her on Twitter.