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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.

Wake-up call

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.

muzz July 01, 2011 at 10:07 PM
Selma 1965 - Soweto 1976 - Gaza/West Bank 2011 a global nonviolent movement aiming to expand the realm of freedom, dignity & justice to ALL of us http://www.bdsmovement.net/
Mark Chmiel July 01, 2011 at 10:42 PM
From the US Holocaust Memorial Museum web site: The Museum honors as survivors any persons, Jewish or non-Jewish, who were displaced, persecuted, or discriminated against due to the racial, religious, ethnic, social, and political policies of the Nazis and their collaborators between 1933 and 1945. In addition to former inmates of concentration camps, ghettos, and prisons, this definition includes, among others, people who were refugees or were in hiding.
peace4all July 01, 2011 at 10:53 PM
If only other inidividuals from similar situations could follow suit! As a Holocaust survivor, this woman understands that what Israel is doing to Palestine right now is the equivalent of what the Nazis' where doing to the Jews during WWII. When will people learn that history is horribly repeating itself and it needs to be STOPPED!! We need more individuals like this woman in the world and only then can we stop these atrocities and come together in peace.
no name July 01, 2011 at 11:44 PM
I dont understand. Though her parents died in the Holocaust, she herself cannot be counted among those who suffered from it? Is that what you mean? I may be reading you incorrectly.
Mary Ann Altobell July 02, 2011 at 01:10 AM
Hedy Epstein, I congratulate you on your integrity, bravery and honesty,You are truly a HERO!! It is sad that the Jewish community cannot see nor feel in their hearts the compassion you have for others. You are what GOD would look upon as one of the CHOSEN ONES. May Peace and God's Blessings be to you and all those who will sail to Gaza.
Dawn L Rubbert July 02, 2011 at 04:28 AM
The strait-forward honesty of this article is refreshing. Thank you for posting it. Hedy is a remarkable person and committed to peace with every cell in her body. She is among the faithful; and incessantly hopeful, yet realistic.
Helen July 02, 2011 at 01:15 PM
You are truly an enlightened person, bless you for standing up for whats right no matter what people say. Thank you for being strong. As I believe that those who perished in the camps would never ever want their suffering to inspire more violence and would want peace for everyone, YOU are honoring their memory. Thank you.
Lauren Principia July 02, 2011 at 02:28 PM
Yes, peace4all really understands when writing "what Israel is doing to Palestine right now is the equivalent of what the Nazis' where doing to the Jews during WWII." The two new shopping malls, 4 star hotels, and olympic size pools in Gaza are definitely the equivalent of Auschwitz. Treating Gaza children in Israeli hospitals exactly parallels the murder of one million Jewish children.
Jessica Penner July 02, 2011 at 03:15 PM
I was in Gaza in 1999; it was bad then, and it is worse now, if that is possible. In Israel/Palestine there's a saying: Go drink the water in Gaza. This is not a kind suggestion. The water in Gaza is undrinkable, yet the people in Gaza have no other option. How can an entire population be denied access to the clean water that is just across the border? Hmmmm... Most people in Gaza are not living in the lap of luxury. The leaders and the wealthy citizens are enjoying these amenities. And as far as treating Gaza's children, I refer you to WHO's report from Oct. 2010: http://unispal.un.org/UNISPAL.NSF/0/328DCAAE87119836852577D800660459. I'd suggest you either a) go to Gaza to see the reality, or at least b) do some research before you comment on a situation that is convoluted at the very best.
Bhatman July 02, 2011 at 05:42 PM
Epstein is many things but holocaust survivor? Did she have a tattoo on her arm or spend years in hiding? No, she was in a London orphanage. Let's not imbue her with the same level of suffering as an Elie Wiesel or Anne Frank. Her family died, isn't that enough? Well then every Jew must be a survivor too, who didn't lose family? We let Epstein and the other "as a Jews"steal the narrative that doesn't belong to them, and they should be confronted for what they really are -- usurpers of history, hate mongers and collaborat­ors. Epstein escaped when 6 million could not. By putting on the mantle of survivor she becomes the perfect prop for the flotilla organizers because she is willing to abuse the memory of her parents and all who died by comparing Israeli soldiers to Nazis. Had there been an Israel when her family was taken to Auschwitz, Israel would have saved them just as it saved 800,000 Jews from Arab countries that expelled them in 1948. A real Holocaust survivor will tell you that we are not going to be victims again, nor are we interested in making Palestinia­ns victims. Israel offered peace time and time again, only to be met with violence. Epstein isn't interested in the rockets fired from Gaza, rather she uses her earlier associatio­n with the Jewish people to get headlines. She uses the label of “survivor” to betray those who died, while she was blessed to survive. Shame on her.
Elliot Wilson July 02, 2011 at 06:30 PM
This is obviously a highly complex issue. Bhatman, your attack on Epstein is completely uncalled for -- though she may not have been tattooed or brought into a camp, she is certainly a Holocaust survivor (see the definition above). Refugees who did not experience the worst parts of the Holocaust are constantly called on to speak at Holocaust memorials; it isn't until you disagree with them that suddenly their title becomes illegitimate. She lost her parents at Auschwitz, something you horrifyingly belittle. Peace4all, the Holocaust comparisons are inappropriate. Especially because this conflict is so sensitive, we should not succumb to the need to use rhetorical exaggeration. That said, the facts prove that the number of Palestinian deaths FAR surpass the number of Israeli deaths in this conflict. Lauren, your suggestion that Gaza is as splendid as Israel also doesn't hold up. Israel's blockade of Gaza has resulted in mass poverty and has limited citizen's access to electricity, food, and medical care. You're right to point out that Israeli hospitals treat Palestinians, a very important fact proving that many Israeli actions in this conflict are very praiseworthy, but it is difficult for Palestinians to actually access these hospitals. The Israeli government’s actions towards Epstein’s ship, which carries author Alice Walker, and which has allowed the press onboard to prove that it is only carrying letters, not weapons, are unjustified and highly disturbing.
farfel July 02, 2011 at 07:24 PM
I agree with this. Epstein is not by definition a Holocaust survivor. As you write, she has stolen "the narrative that doesn't belong" to her. I see this phenomenon more and more as those that managed to suffer through the Nazi atrocities, age and die. A "younger group" of 80-something Jews themselves claim to be survivors even though they weren't in ghettos or concentration camps. If she had not had the good fortune to be removed from continental Europe, she could most likely have been fated to the same end which befell her parents and million of other Jews...my own family among them. She is a misguided Jew whose actions are only feeding into the anti-Semitism machine. I quote from the scholarly work by Anthony Julius, “ Trials of the Diaspora: A History of Anti-Semitism in England:” “Israel is the only state in the world whose legitimacy is widely denied and whose destruction is publicly advocated and threatened. Israelis are the only citizens of a state whose indiscriminate murder is widely considered justifiable.”
Jessica Penner July 02, 2011 at 09:07 PM
I was in Gaza in 1999; it was bad then, and it is worse now, if that is possible. In Israel/Palestine there's a saying: Go drink the water in Gaza. This is not a kind suggestion. The water in Gaza is undrinkable, yet the people in Gaza have no other option. How can an entire population be denied access to the clean water that is just across the border? Most people in Gaza are not living in the lap of luxury. The leaders and the wealthy citizens are enjoying these amenities. And as far as treating Gaza's children, I refer you to WHO's report from Oct. 2010: http://unispal.un.org/UNISPAL.NSF/0/328DCAAE87119836852577D800660459. I'd suggest you either a) go to Gaza to see the reality, or at least b) do some research before you comment on a situation that is convoluted at the very best.
Jessica July 02, 2011 at 09:13 PM
My earlier post was somehow deleted, so this may be redundant: I was in Gaza in 1999; it was bad then, and it is worse now, if that is possible. In Israel/Palestine there's a saying: Go drink the water in Gaza. This is not a kind suggestion. The water in Gaza is undrinkable, yet the people in Gaza have no other option. How can an entire population be denied access to the clean water that is just across the border? Most people in Gaza are not living in the lap of luxury. The leaders and the wealthy citizens are enjoying these amenities. And as far as treating Gaza's children, I refer you to WHO's report from Oct. 2010: http://unispal.un.org/UNISPAL.NSF/0/328DCAAE87119836852577D800660459. I'd suggest you either a) go to Gaza to see the reality, or at least b) do some research before you comment on a situation that is convoluted at the very best.
farfel July 02, 2011 at 10:07 PM
My post was deleted twice. I'm reposting again. I agree with Bhatman. Epstein is not by definition a Holocaust survivor. As you write, she has stolen "the narrative that doesn't belong" to her. I see this phenomenon more and more as those that managed to suffer through the Nazi atrocities, age and die. A "younger group" of 80-something Jews themselves claim to be survivors even though they weren't in ghettos or concentration camps. If she had not had the good fortune to be removed from continental Europe, she could most likely have been fated to the same end which befell her parents and million of other Jews...my own family among them. She is a misguided Jew whose actions are only feeding into the anti-Semitism machine. I quote from the scholarly work by Anthony Julius, “ Trials of the Diaspora: A History of Anti-Semitism in England:” “Israel is the only state in the world whose legitimacy is widely denied and whose destruction is publicly advocated and threatened. Israelis are the only citizens of a state whose indiscriminate murder is widely considered justifiable.”
Rosa Sharon July 02, 2011 at 11:03 PM
It is my understanding that Palestinian refugees have refused numerous invitations from other Arab nations, and from Israel as well, to make true homes within their borders. Lest anyone be unaware, Israel has Arab judges and Knesset members, Arabs are full citizens in Israel, in the full meaning of the word - they vote, get medical care, work, go to school, etc. God says in Scripture that He will bless those who bless Israel and curse those who don't. Let us heed this message.
Rosa Sharon July 02, 2011 at 11:08 PM
Furthermore, let's not forget the terrorists among the Arabs there who have made necessary the Gaza restrictions upon all who live in that area.
Christiane Carlsson July 03, 2011 at 12:41 AM
Democracy Now is bringing ongoing life coverage of the Audacity of Hope - one of their journalists is on board - and the status of the situation in the Mediterranean. Here is their link. The video from Friday includes an interview with Walker, Epstein, and others on board the ship.http://www.democracynow.org/2011/7/1/us_ship_in_freedom_flotilla_leaves May everyone return safely.
Christiane Carlsson July 03, 2011 at 12:55 AM
http://www.democracynow.org/2011/7/1/us_ship_in_freedom_flotilla_leaves This should work better. :)
Jessica July 03, 2011 at 03:43 AM
Actually, your understanding is wrong; Israeli Arabs are NOT treated as equal citizens, even if they live in Israel's borders. Much like in South America during Apartheid, they are treated like second-class citizens. In Jordan, where many Palestinian refugees now live (1,698,271 as of 2002), they are "officially" equal to Jordanian citizens, but the reality speaks otherwise: http://www.forcedmigration.org/guides/fmo025/fmo025.pdf If someone came to your town that has been settled by your ancestors for well over two thousand years and said: "Hey, leave this place. We want it. But you can move over there and live happily" what would you do? I have a hard time believing you'd go willingly. You say: "to make true homes" but how are their homes from before untrue?
gfdsgr July 03, 2011 at 04:20 AM
http://www.youtube.com/watch?feature=player_embedded&v=IPd_cLpjShY
Richard July 03, 2011 at 05:59 AM
I applowed Hedy Epstein for her passions, however do not agree with her stand. There is not enough space here to say all I feel. I would love to express to Hedy that there is over many 'MANY' Arabs that live within Israell today, all recieve the same privilages as Israel citizens. Please look up yourselves: Arabs and Muslims in Israel. Be very careful for these so called members she is traveling with are known terrorists themselves...Bill Ayer's for one comes to mind. Ask yourselves you really support such Terrorists that have vowed to wipe Israel off the map? Show me any Muslim country that is as tolerant to its people as Israel?..Go, speak to the Arabs in Israel today Hedy, ask them why they do not want to return back to their Muslim countries? God Bless You Hedy your heart is good.....I wish you well. By joining this group you show you support the groups motives of violence and destruction of a people and a country. This is clearly meant to be provocative for Isarel will have to respond...If Israel falls, there will be no other democracy in the entire region...then it will be on to Europe and the West the march to spread Radical Islam for There is only one law, The Law of Allah...There will be no women's rights, no tolerance of gays, no tolerance to anyone that does not bow to and except Allah's Law.
Bhatman July 03, 2011 at 06:09 PM
Elliot you owe me an apology, I did not, nor would I "belittle" the loss of her family, if anything I honor and remember them as someone who too lost family.. Rather I said that her actions are all the more odious "because she is willing to abuse the memory of her parents and all who died by comparing Israeli soldiers to Nazis." I hope you see the difference. The acknowledgement and memory of how bitter the loss must be there for an abuse to occur. Splitting hairs? perhaps. We owe a duty to the living as well as the dead. Standing up for Israel and the generations that followed those days is a an expression of remembrance that outweighs all the Yarzheit candles.
Irene Danon July 03, 2011 at 09:59 PM
I too am a Holocaust survivor and I think that Epstein is a very ignorant woman. How could she ever doubt the existance of Israel. Had there been an Israel, there may not have been a Holocaust. And as for the land, Jews have been there before the word Palestinian ever existed. And furthermore, Arabs are masters at propaganda. Not that all the Jew are angels, but they are trying to survive. Many Muslims were colaborating with the Nazis in killing Jews, and I have no sympathy for them. Shame on you, Epstein for not honoring all your dead relatives. Irene Danon
Elliot Wilson July 05, 2011 at 10:25 PM
I still see a belittement. The purpose of your original post was to discredit Epstein and claim that she should not only not be considered a Holocaust survivor, but worse, a "hate monger," "collaborator," etc. I am still disturbed by the end of your first paragraph, where you essentially say, if I can paraphrase, that if her experiences qualify her as a Holocaust survivor, then virtually all Jews can be considered Holocaust survivors. Your statement, in the context of your attack on Epstein (where you explicitly say she should not be considered a true Holocaust survivor), emphatically belittles her loss by making it appear ordinary and insignificant. I think that is the wrong attitude with which to approach the Holocaust. No matter how ubiquitous the suffering was, no matter how widespread the horror, each individual who lived through part of the Holocaust endured something extraordinary. I know that you will agree with this statement. For that very reason, I am bothered by your original post. You make her suffering seem insignificant and discredit her experiences in the Holocaust, not because you fundamentally think that all refugees are usurpers of a title, but because you need to de-legitimize someone who does not share your views of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
Jessica Penner July 06, 2011 at 03:09 PM
My post was deleted again--not sure why, but here it is again: Once again, my post was deleted. Is the following considered "inappropriate?" Actually, your understanding is wrong; Israeli Arabs are NOT treated as equal citizens, even if they live in Israel's borders. I would not equate it with the Holocaust, however, it is like South African during Apartheid. In Israel, they are treated like second-class citizens. In Jordan, where many Palestinian refugees now live (1,698,271 as of 2002), they are "officially" equal to Jordanian citizens, but the reality speaks otherwise: http://www.forcedmigration.org/guides/fmo025/fmo025.pdf If someone came to your town that has been settled by your ancestors for well over two thousand years and said: "Hey, leave this place. We want it. But you can move over there and live happily" what would you do? I have a hard time believing you'd go willingly. You say: "to make true homes" but how are their homes from before untrue?
Rich July 10, 2011 at 03:43 PM
Boycotts are destructive and divisive. They do not advance peace, only make the parties more inflexible. Each side must work with the other if there is ever to be peace. Boycotting Israeli products does not encourage Palestinians to return to negotiations. In fact, it shows that they do not need to negotiate at all. It does nothing to help them improve their lives, begin state building, or develop democratic institutions. It is a call for destructive, not constructive, action. If you want to do something to build peace, support efforts that bring Israelis and Palestinians together. Supporting boycotts ignores the context of Israel’s actions. Boycotters never mention the ongoing terrorism that Israelis have suffered from groups like Hezbollah and Hamas. They were silent when Palestinians launched a suicide bombing campaign that murdered over 1,000 Israeli civilians in restaurants, on school buses, and at dance clubs. They were silent when Hamas launched 10,000 rockets at Israel’s southern communities. They are silent about Hamas’ and Iran’s openly genocidal goals to destroy Israel. Supporting boycotts gives cover to t Hamas and Hezbollah, two of the most repressive, reactionary, fundamentalist religious/political movements in the world. Under these regimes, women have minimal rights and gays are summarily killed. There is a complete disconnect between beliefs in human and civil rights, women’s rights and democracy and the beliefs promoted by Hamas and Hezbollah.
Rich July 10, 2011 at 04:26 PM
Comparison of Israel to the Nazis shows sheer ignorance about the Nazis and about Israel's current war against terrorism. The Palestinians do not remotely resemble the Jews of Europe. The Jews were patriotic, law-abiding citizens in the countries where they lived. They did not arm themselves, initiate hostilities, terrorism or slaughter against those countries' innocent civilians, or declare their right to take over those countries and expel or exterminate their citizens. Yet this is what Palestinians have unleashed against Israel and it is what Israel is forced to combat. Israel uses more restraint than any other nation, including democracies, against far less provocation. Its army operates according to one of the strictest rules of engagement of any country in the world to protect civilians, and when there are lapses, a robust independent judiciary investigates and punishes as necessary. The Nazi goal, in contrast, was to enslave, starve or exterminate all its enemies, Jews and other peoples alike. From the London bombings to the battles in Stalingrad to the suppression of the Warsaw Uprising, the Nazis showed no concern for civilian populations. Contrast that with the Israeli army's standards: The Israeli army has one of the strictest rules of engagement in the world in terms of protecting civilians. Few countries besides Israel faced with such open hostility and constant terrorism take the risks to its own soldiers that Israel does to avoid civilian casualties.
Rich July 10, 2011 at 04:35 PM
If people like Hedy want to help Palestinians, they should be trying to persuade extremist Palestinian groups, terrorists and Hamas to end the violence, to return to the negotiating table and to be willing to make compromises in the interests of peaceful co-existence. It is wonderful that is are concerned about human rights abuses and is committed to fighting for peace and justice. What I don't understand is why she volunteers for an organization that admits to working with some of the world's most violent terrorist groups. If she wanted to advance peace and justice, why not volunteer for organizations that advance realistic initiatives for peace - not organizations that work with terrorists and despots to advance maximalist demands while people - Palestinians and Israelis - suffer? Wouldn't her efforts to protect Palestinians would be better served by trying to encourage reform of the corrupt Palestininan Authority which is terrorizing Palestinians, denying legal recourse to them, stealing their money, prohibiting a free press and educating for anti-Semitism and calling out racist slogans for killing Jews? Wouldn't the Palestinian people be better off if their own leadership served them instead of serving themselves?
Max July 10, 2011 at 06:25 PM
It is Palestinians, not Israel that uses Nazi-like methods. Palestinians target innocent civilians, murdering them for no other reason than that they are Jew, just as the Nazis did. Palestinians, not Israelis, target children and women and attack civilians to create maximum carnage. At the height of the Palestinian terrorist campaign in the early 2000s, they attacked an ice cream parlor, a university cafeteria, pizzeria, night clubs, buses (often timed for when schoolchildren are on them), playgrounds and childrens' bedrooms. It is the Palestinian leaders, not Israel, that has adopted Nazi-like methods. They have resurrected in schools and public broadcasts the same anti-Semitic literature, racist incitement and dehumanization that the Nazis used against the Jews in the 1930s. The comparison between Israel and Nazi Germany is ludicrous and offensive. Jews in Nazi Germany were persecuted and systematically exterminated for no crime besides being Jews. They were stripped of all their rights as human beings - fired from employment, all belongings taken, herded into ghetto-prisons and then sent to extermination camps or just massacred. Unlike the Palestinians, those Jews were not surrounded by nations that could give them refuge or supply them with arms. They didn't have the option to negotiate or even surrender. They were persecuted and killed, not because of anything they had done, not because they had taken up arms to destroy Germany, but simply because they were Jews.

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