Hedy Epstein, a 90-year-old Holocaust survivor, human rights activist, and St. Louis resident, knows a thing or two about standing up against injustice. She’s spent her life fighting inequality, so when Missouri Governor Jay Nixon called in the National Guard to get involved in the unrest in Ferguson following the shooting of unarmed teen Michael Brown, she showed up at a peaceful march on Monday protesting his choice. The protestors planned to march through downtown St. Louis directly into Nixon’s office to request that he take a different approach to the situation. As they walked, they chanted “Hands up! Don’t shoot!” and ”Hey, hey! Ho, ho! National Guard has got to go!” When they reached the building, the group was blocked from the office by police officers who told them Nixon was not around. The protestors were told to leave, but Epstein and 8 others refused, only to be arrested and carted to a police station downtown. She told Newsweek, “I really didn’t think about being arrested or doing anything like that. I was just going to be somebody in the crowd. I guess maybe I was impulsive: Someone said, ‘Who is willing to be arrested if that happens?’ I said, ‘Yeah, I’m willing.’” Epstein was released, but she has an October court date looming.
She shared with Newsweek her haunting thoughts on the matter:
“I’m deeply, deeply troubled by what’s going on in Ferguson…It’s a matter of racism and injustice, and it’s not only in Ferguson…. Racism is alive and well in the United States. The power structure looks at anyone who’s different as the other, as less worthy, and so you treat the other as someone who is less human and who needs to be controlled and who is not trusted…I’m Jewish and I was born in Germany, so I think I can understand what it feels like to be African American in this country. I was a child living under the Nazi regime and I lived in a village so everybody knew who I was and that I was Jewish. I remember feeling uncomfortable walking down the street, seeing people cross to the other side of the street, or seeing a Nazi I didn’t want to pass by.”
Epstein was born in Freiburg, Germany in 1924. When she was 14 years old, her parents put her on a ship to England through Kindertransport, the British operation that rescued children from the Holocaust. She never saw her parents again, and the last correspondence she received from her mother was a 1942 postcard that said, ”Traveling to the east … Sending you a final goodbye.” They were likely killed in Auschwitz. After the war, Epstein worked as a research analyst for American prosecutors during the Nuremberg trials. When she moved to New York in 1948, she began working for the New York Association for New Americans, an organization that brought Holocaust survivors to the U.S. A black coworker showed her around the office on her first day, and when Epstein asked if they could go to lunch together, the woman declined. She continued to turn her down her invitation for several days until Epstein finally asked her why the woman wouldn’t eat with her. “She said, ‘You know why.’ And I said, ‘No, I don’t,’” she recalled to Newsweek. Her coworker then explained to Epstein about segregation in the States, and Epstein’s immediate thought was, “Wait a minute. Lincoln freed the slaves. This is 1948. You can’t go to eat where I go? Isn’t someone doing something about this?”
In addition for fighting for racial equality, she’s a member of the Free Gaza Movement. She’s visited the West Bank five times, and was once detained at a Tel Aviv airport and strip-searched. She was also tear gassed during a peaceful protest in Israel, and lost some of her hearing due to sound bombs that went off nearby. Epstein has stood up for abortion rights, fair housing, and anti-war movements. She even traveled to Guatemala, Nicaragua and Cambodia as a peace delegate. As she was escorted away to a police van on Monday, Epstein told The Nation, “I’ve been doing this since I was a teenager. I didn’t think I would have to do it when I was 90. We need to stand up today so that people won’t have to do this when they’re 90.”
Epstein has no plans to stop fighting to make our world a better one. Her autobiography, Remembering Is Not Enough, is available in German, and she’s also contributed articles about social issues to countless journals and newspapers. She has been speaking to audiences about her experiences and goals of peace for the past 40 years, and has been interviewed on radio and TV shows. “The basis of who I am today was what my parents taught me and what I saw. They were examples to me of how one lives and how one does not persecute other people,” says Epstein. “I would like to think that they’re proud of me.” [Newsweek] [Image via Pearl Gabel/New York Daily News]