An Interview with Hedy Epstein: “I Was Not Prepared for the Horrors I Saw”
By SILVIA CATTORI
Hedy Epstein, 82, was born in Germany in 1924(1). She was the only child of parents who died in the Nazi extermination camps. She is a tireless worker for human rights and for the dignity of all people.
Hedy decided to visit Palestine in 2003. She returned terribly shocked with what she had seen there, women and children defenceless, Palestinians locked up into ghettos, an entire people brutalized.
She had learned to love the people that she met, and was determined to tell the world of the injustices she had seen. Palestinians were being dispossessed of their land, removed from the homes that they had lived in for centuries. Nothing that anyone has done, no protests that have been made, has made Israel stop its treatment of the Palestinians. In fact, it has become worse every time Hedy has returned.
So, she is joining other human rights advocates who are sailing to Gaza on the boat, FREE GAZA(2) to demand justice for the Palestinians, and a correction of 60 years of oppression by the Israelis.
Silvia Cattori: Your entire life has been devoted to justice. But, since 2003, you have increased that commitment by advocating for justice for the Palestinians. I understand you are going to take some risks to make the world aware of the crimes perpetrated against them!?
Hedy Epstein: I was invited to join the Free Gaza boat by the organizers, and I feel honoured that I was invited to join (3).
Silvia Cattori: Entering the waters of Gaza with Palestinian, international, and Israeli peace activists is sure to be a wonderful project; but it won’t it be full of tension? Are you not anxious about participating in such an expedition?
Hedy Epstein: Of course, I have some concerns. But, does life insure that nothing will happen to me? You know, tomorrow morning when I get out of bed, I might feel so sleepy that I’ll trip over my own feet and fall down and break my back. So what am I going to do, remain in bed for the rest of my life? No.
There are no guarantees in life. Perhaps no one should put herself in a situation that’s dangerous. But my participation is a small contribution that I can make compared to the sufferings that the Palestinians endure every single day. And, if by doing this, we can tell the world what is happening there, then it’s worth going. I’m 82 years old, and I have lived, most of the time, a good life. Let me make a contribution before it’s too late.
Silvia Cattori: This boat going to Gaza coincides with the 60th anniversary of the departure from Marseille of the EXODUS. Don’t you think it’s somewhat controversial to be in a boat sailing to the same place as the EXODUS?
Hedy Epstein: No. What I’m doing is what I believe in, and what I stand for. In some quarters, especially in the mainstream Jewish community, it looks like I’m a traitor, a “self-hating Jew”. Nonsense. I don’t hate myself. Several years ago, the editor of a Jewish weekly newspaper said to me that I shouldn’t have gone to Palestine. Instead I should have gone to Israel to volunteer in a hospital where people were being treated for injuries as a result of a Palestinian suicide bombing.
And I said I’d be happy to volunteer, but if I did help in an Israeli hospital, would he go with me to a Palestinian hospital and help people who have been injured as a result of what the Israelis have done? He was appalled. “In Palestine?” I said, “Yes, you can, I have been there, so you can go there also, and when you do that, then I will be happy to work in your hospital.” That was several years ago, and I have never heard from him yet.
Silvia Cattori: Why did you choose to advocate in a place where the Israelis are so opposed to your involvement?
Hedy Epstein: Let me give you a little bit of my background, so that you will know how I’ve gotten to where I am today. I was born into a Jewish family in Germany. When Hitler came to power, I was eight years old. My parents very quickly realised that Germany was not a safe place for them to stay and to raise a family. They were willing to go anywhere, and they tried desperately to leave. But they were NEVER willing to go to Palestine, because they were ardent anti-Zionists.
I didn’t understand at the time what Zionism was and what being an anti- Zionist was, but I did know that in the village where I lived, which is Kittenheim in South-West Germany, there was a Zionist Jewish group, and I was not allowed to participate in it. I was the only Jewish child in the village who didn’t become a part of that group. Since my parents were ardent anti- Zionists, even though I didn’t understand what this really meant, I was an ardent anti-Zionist also.
Then, in 1939, thanks to my parent’s great love for me, I was able to leave Germany on a children transport to England. When I left in May 1939, it was the last time that I saw my parents and other family members. They all died in the camps. I came to United States in May 1948, about the same time that Israel became a state. I had some mixed feelings about that event. On the one hand I was very happy there was a place for people to go who had survived the holocaust, who perhaps didn’t want or weren’t able to return to their places of origin, but on the other hand, remembering my parents’ ardent anti-Zionism, I was worried that somewhere down the road, no good was going to come of this. What that trouble might be, I couldn’t even imagine. But I was new in the United States, and there were new things to learn. So Israel was on the backburner and remained there for years.
In 1982, I received my personal wake-up call: the terrible massacres in the two refugee camps of Sabra and Chatila in Lebanon. I needed to find out what the tragedy was all about, why it happened, and who was responsible. Then, when I found out, I needed to learn more about the history of what happened between 1948, when Israel became a state, and 1982 in Sabra and Chatila. When I was learning, I realized that I hadn’t paid attention to what was going on with Israel. And the more I learned and the more I understood, the more I became disturbed by what the Israeli government was doing, and doing in my name.
So, the more I learned, the more I began to speak out publicly against the policies and practices of the Israeli government vis-à-vis the Palestinian people. Then, in September 2003, I went to Palestine.
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