Hedy Epstein smiling and wearing a shirt that says "Stay Human"

Hedy Epstein, Holocaust Survivor and Anti-Violence Activist, Dies at 91

We lost a dear friend this week. Hedy Epstein, who escaped Nazis as a child in Germany and spent the rest of her life fighting similar state violence in Palestine and near her home in St. Louis, died Thursday. She was 91.

Born in 1924 in Germany, her lifelong commitment to anti-violence activism was formed by the brutality she and her family endured under the Nazi regime. Unable to secure travel documents for themselves, Hedy’s parents arranged for their 14-year-old only child to escape Germany in 1939. Her parents died at Auschwitz in the summer of 1942. Most of her other relatives were also killed in the Holocaust.

Leaving Europe in 1948, it wasn’t long before Hedy was confronted again by state violence: this time against Black Americans in the United States. Retelling her first few weeks in St. Louis, Hedy shares:

The first time I really remember being shocked about my own lack of information was when I came to this country in May 1948, and I started working a few days later. The person who told me what I was supposed to do in my job was an African American woman. Shortly before lunchtime she said, ‘We go to lunch at noon. Did you bring your lunch?’ And I said, ‘No.’ She told me all the different restaurants in the neighborhood. This was in New York City. So, I said, ‘Well, can we go together?’ And she said, ‘No.’ And I didn’t really think anything about it. Maybe she’s made some arrangement with somebody else. ‘OK, well, maybe tomorrow?’ ‘No.’ I waited a few days, and I asked again, ‘Well, can we go to lunch together?’ ‘No.’ By that time, I was beginning to wonder, ‘Is there something about me that’s bothering you? Please tell me.’ She said, ‘Well, you know why.’ ‘No, I don’t know why.’ I said, ‘Please tell my why. I honestly don’t know why.’ ‘Well, you’re White, and where you can go to lunch, I cannot. I’m Negro. And where I go, White people don’t go there.’ I said, ‘What? I read the Good Book, and Lincoln freed the slaves, and this is 1948, and you can’t go to eat where I go? Isn’t somebody doing something about this?’ She said, ‘Yeah, well maybe the Urban League and the NAACP.’ I said, ‘Well, how about I get in touch with them?’ I’d only been in this country less than two weeks. Finally, I went to where she went to eat. I asked her, ‘Can I please go with you?’ And I ate chitlins for the first time. I never heard of chitlins before. That was the beginning of me getting involved in civil rights issues.”

Her involvement in the movement for Black lives continued for decades. At 90, she was arrested in St. Louis for “failure to disperse” while protesting Gov. Jay Nixon’s deployment of the National Guard to violently quell protests in Ferguson, Missouri. “I’ve been doing this since I was a teenager. I didn’t think I would have to do it when I was 90,” Hedy told The Nation shortly after her arrest. “We need to stand up today so that people won’t have to do this when they’re 90.”

Her activism also centered on efforts to end the Israeli occupation of Palestine. She traveled to the West Bank and attempted on multiple occasions to sail to Gaza to protest Israel’s blockade of the Strip. She co-founded the St. Louis Palestine Solidarity Committee and the St. Louis chapter of Jewish Voice for Peace and used her authority as a Holocaust survivor to name and condemn American and Israeli oppression, often happening in her name:

If we don’t try to make a difference, if we don’t speak up, if we don’t try to right the wrong that we see, we become complicit. I don’t want to be guilty of not trying my best to make a difference.

St. Louis, all of us you met, and many of those who never got a chance to, are eternally grateful for all the difference you did make, Hedy. Rest peacefully. We’ll keep fighting.

Images via HuffPost

Mahroh Jahangiri is the former Executive Director of Know Your IX, a national survivor- and youth-led organization working to end gender violence in schools. She cares about the ways in which American militarization, racism, and sexual violence impact communities of color transnationally. You can say hi to her at @mahrohj.

Mahroh Jahangiri is the former Executive Director of Know Your IX, a national survivor- and youth-led organization working to end gender violence in schools.

Read more about Mahroh

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