The J. F. Hornbeck Ethical Humanist of the Year Award Acceptance Speech
by Hedy Epstein
November 5, 1988
I feel honored and humbled to receive this award.
I have been asked to tell you what events in my life have molded me and caused me to become who I am — which is the reason why I am getting this award — but I am going to be who I am. I am fully aware there are social situations where who I am is embarrassing to some people, but my convictions are so deeply rooted that I cannot compromise myself, that is, I have to be who I am.
<Sneeze>…In Germany, where I was born and lived the first 14 1/2 years of my life, it is said that if you tell a story and sneeze, you’re telling the truth so, since I sneezed, I guess I’m going to be telling you the truth.
I was born in Freiburg, a city in Germany’s Black Forest, but was raised and lived in Kippenheim, a village about 40 kilometers north of Freiburg. My family, both on my Mother’s and on my Father’s side of the family, had lived in Germany for many generations and they were very proud of this. My parents were assimilated, secular people in a religiously observant community of both Christians and Jews. Our home-life was dedicated to learning, to dialogue and discussions, to moral and cultural uplift by example and friendly persuasion, to tolerance and to high standards of personal conduct.
All of this set my parents and me aside, that is, it made us different from both the general population as well as the Jewish population of Kippenheim. For instance, I was born in a hospital in Freiburg, 40 kilometers away, while others were delivered by the village doctor in Kippenheim. The Jewish families, without exception, observed Jewish customs and traditions, my parents and I did not. Until Hitler forbade it, my parents travelled, they attended concerts, operas, plays and lectures given in nearby cities, while the villagers were content to stay at home or visit with each other. I was very keenly aware of this difference from a very early age, and it caused me a great deal of pain. I often wished that my parents would be like the parents of some of the children that I knew, so that I could be like these children. Yet, when I visited in these children’s homes, I felt uncomfortable and wanted to be back at home. This remained an unresolved vicious cycle.
When Hitler came to power on January 31st, 1933 I was 8 years old. So now if you’re good at arithmetic, you can figure out how old I am. While I heard my parents and other adults talk about how bad Hitler is and how they hoped he wouldn’t and couldn’t last, I really did not think this had anything to do with me or my family. But that very quickly changed. On April 1st, 1933, just 2 months after Hitler came to power, there was a boycott of all Jewish businesses all over Germany. My father and his brother had a dry goods business, which was started by my Great-Grandfather in 1857. On April 1st, 1933 a Nazi SA man, those were the brown shirts, stood in front of our business to prevent Christians from entering and I asked what this was all about and was told don’t worry, it’s nothing, it will go away, and, indeed it did, the boycott lasted just one day. In 1935 or 1936 my maternal Grandfather, who lived in another city, came to live with us for several months at a time. I thought that was really wonderful and didn’t dwell on the reasons why he was staying with us. He had been arrested and jailed after a Nazi told him that my Grandfather, a Jew, was not allowed to walk in the street and was not allowed to walk on the sidewalk. He was released from jail when he agreed to give up his business and to give up his home and leave town and never come back. Here was a 67 year old man suddenly without a home and without a livelihood. And that’s why he came and spent several months at a time with us, and then he spent several months with my uncle, his son, and his wife, and when he felt he was too much of an imposition on my uncle and aunt and on my family he would go and spend some time in an old age home. His presence in our home in some ways compensated for some of the pain of exclusion that I began to feel because by then some of the Jewish children had moved away or had left the country with their families and had gone either to the United States or other countries, and the Christian children in school would no longer play with me, would no longer talk to me. One of my teachers, my math teacher, an SS man, those were the people with the black uniforms and the skull and death-heads on their lapels, he came clad in his uniform and with a revolver in his boots to class every single day and referred to my answers to his questions as Jewish answers, and therefore wrong answers. Like for instance if he asked me what is 2 and 2 and I said it’s 4, it was a Jewish 4, and therefore a wrong 4. My feelings of being different were exacerbated and added to them was a growing sense of loneliness.
By this time my parents had begun their efforts to get out of Germany. The difficulty wasn’t to get out, because Hitler and his cohorts were very anxious to get rid of the Jews. The difficulty was to find a receptive country, to find a sponsor. I vividly recall a letter my parents received from a distant relative in Chicago who wrote that he was unable to help us because he was very fortunate to have a job and was able to support his aging mother and himself. This was during the 1930’s and during the depression and so I guess he was lucky being employed. He feared asking his employer for help and he didn’t wish to approach the Jewish community because he didn’t want to make a fool of himself and he also didn’t want the Jewish community to be embarrassed. He suggested that my parents “wait and things will get better.” Indeed they did get better, but by then my parents had perished either on their way to Auschwitz or in Auschwitz. The comment — “wait and things will get better” — still rings in my ears today and, when I hear similar comments, I really become very angry. You know we very often hear about, when we talk about Blacks in this country, or what’s going on in South Africa, that, you know, people have to be patient. It just takes time. There’s just been a series of articles in the Post-Dispatch about Blacks and the economy, and, you know, it’s been taking a long long time and I think, if anything, we’ve regressed.
In four days Jewish communities all over the United States and maybe all over the world will be remembering the 50th anniversary of Kristallnacht or Crystal Night or the Night of the Broken Glass which was the Nazi-led anti-Jewish pogrom, which launched the active phase of the Holocaust. On November 9th rampaging Nazis burned and vandalized synagogues, smashed windows of Jewish owned stores and homes, arrested Jewish males and sent them to concentration camps. And this happened in my lifetime. This was a day, November 9th, 1938 was a day, a time, I’ll never forget. That day began for me with being thrown out of school and never allowed to return, by the principal who came into my classroom where I was the only Jewish child. As you heard in the poem by Julie Heifetz, he came in and he pointed his finger at me and said “Get out you dirty Jew.” This was the day when I saw my Father and other Jewish men being marched down the street in chains, with SS men hitting them, asking them to march faster; a day when all the windows in our home were broken; a day when my Mother, Aunt and I were hiding in an old wardrobe in the attic from the Nazi hordes who were banging on the door downstairs. For two weeks we didn’t know where my father, or where any of the other Jewish men were. My Father and the other men had been taken to Dachau. Dachau was the first concentration camp built by the Nazis in 1933. While hiding in the attic on that November 9th day, 1938, I whispered to my Mother, “I want to get out of here, and I don’t mean just this wardrobe I want to get out of Germany.” That wish became a reality on May 18th, 1939 when I left with 500 children on a children’s transport for England. May 18th, 1939 was also the last time that I saw my parents and my family. I was 14 then.
These experiences have made me sensitive, not just to anti-Semitism, but to problems in our society and in the world, and to the importance of caring and working toward “Tikkun olam,” the righteous reordering of the world, to my own responsibility and to opening up others to resist the evils in this world. How strongly I feel this is best expressed in a line from the Talmud, the authoritative book on Jewish tradition: “If you save one life, it is as if you have saved the world,” I’m also reminded of a famous quote by Pastor Niemoeller who said, “First they came for the socialists, and I wasn’t a socialist, and so I did nothing. And then they came for the union members, and I wasn’t a union member, and so I did nothing. And then they came for the Catholics, and I wasn’t Catholic, and so I did nothing. And then they came for the Jews, and I wasn’t Jewish, and so I did nothing. And then they came for me, and by then there was no-one left to do anything.”
To say that I’m a Jew, that I’m an immigrant from Germany, that I lost my parents and many of my family members during the destruction of European Jewry, which is commonly referred to as the Nazi Holocaust, touches only the surface. So where does my need come from, the inner push for change? It comes in part from my early upbringing, the encouragement to not only ask questions, but to look for answers and solutions to problems. It comes from remembering the fears, the pain, the upheavals, and the deaths. Remembering, not forgetting, indeed is the theme of survivors of the Holocaust. Unfortunately this is where it stops for many. For me, understanding the enormity of what happened then, has expanded the edges of my consciousness, to see beyond the pain, to understand that remembering also has to have a present and a future perspective. It awakened my conscience when I was still in the midst of it and didn’t know the full impact yet. As a teenager living in London, England during World War II, I belonged to an organization which was concerned with reeducating Germans after the war. That was hardly a popular cause while London was being bombed by Germany’s air force. But this was the beginning of my political education.
In the summer of 1945, after the war was over, I returned to Germany to work for the American government in the U. S. Civil Censorship Division and we censored incoming and outgoing German mail, and then I worked at the Nuremberg Trials, looking for documentary evidence used in the trial of former Nazi doctors who conducted medical experiments on concentration camp inmates. It was here that much to my surprise I first faced my deep hatred for Germans. It wasn’t until April, 1970 when this country was deeply involved in the Vietnam War and we entered into Cambodia, that I sort of resolved this hatred. You know, hatred is a very self-destructive thing. I asked myself what would I say if someone tonight here would ask me what I did to oppose the war. And I’d say I wrote letters and sent telegrams, I picketed and I marched but that was really at no risk to myself or my family. And then my thoughts travelled across the ocean and across the years and I wondered what would have happened to the Germans if any one of them had done what I was doing here. They would have ended up in a concentration camp. And it was then that I realized that they really would have had to be heroes to do that. And, you know, how many of us are heroes? And I can’t really expect a whole nation of people to be heroes. I myself haven’t been put to the task, to prove myself, I haven’t had to risk my life and I don’t know what I would do if I would have to, or if I would have to risk the life of my family.
I came to this country in May, 1948 and very quickly became involved in in the issues and the controversies that divided the country then. 1948 was an election year. It was the year that Truman was elected president. Though I wasn’t a citizen yet and therefore unable to vote, the memory of my having had my citizenship revoked some thirteen years earlier by the Nazi Nuremberg laws, had been seared into my very being, and so I became involved in electoral politics. I was supporting Henry Wallace if any of you remember him. This was also a time leading up to the cold war hysteria, the McCarthy era, the persecution of anyone remotely involved, or even believed to be involved, in Communist causes, the trial and the execution of the Rosenbergs. It was also a time when the problems of Blacks and other racial minorities in this country had not yet gained national visibility, though it came into focus for me very quickly when I learned that a Black co-worker couldn’t eat lunch with me at the same lunch counter because the passage of the public accommodation law was still some sixteen years away. Visions of “Juden Eintritt verboten!” which means “Entry to Jews forbidden,” and the ensuing pain, were still all too vivid in my memory.
In the 1960’s and 70’s I was involved in anti-Vietnam war activities, and work with war resisters. Around 1963 or 64 I began my work as a volunteer with Freedom of Residence which is a fair housing organization here in St. Louis. It’s just about extinct now but I just learned this evening that maybe it’s going to be revived. And later on I became a board member, and then staff member, and finally as Director of Freedom of Residence until I left in 1978 due to burnout.
I want to digress for a moment to give recognition to Jim Sporleder, who preceded me as Director of Freedom of Residence. At a time when my self-esteem and my self-confidence were extremely low, Jim offered me a job at Freedom of Residence, but more than that, he restored my self-confidence and gave me a new lease on life. Jim Sporleder, much like my father, in a very caring way forced me to think and to figure out problems by myself. I remember the phone would ring and Jim was sitting to my right behind me, and I’d turn around and say “Jim, what do I do?” And Jim would say, “think about it, figure it out.” Jim is here tonight. I’ve thanked him privately before but I want to thank him publicly. Jim do you want to stand up and let’s all give a big hand to Jim. Thank you.
I’d like to add also that while I’ve often been commended for my work at Freedom of Residence, I’m really deeply grateful for the opportunity I had working there because I received far more than I was ever able to give Freedom of Residence. I don’t think I’d be standing here tonight if it hadn’t been for Jim or for Freedom of Residence.
In more recent times I’ve become a member of New Jewish Agenda. New Jewish Agenda is a multi-issue national organization with chapters in about fifty cities, one of them here in St. Louis. New Jewish Agenda is a progressive voice in the Jewish community. New Jewish Agenda’s theme is the development of progressive American Jewish thinking and action in the area of social justice at home and abroad, within our families, within our community settings. Programmatically New Jewish Agenda is divided into five task forces: Social and Economic Justice and the local chair of that is sitting way in the back there, Feminism, Central America, Middle East and the chairperson is also sitting back there, and Disarmament. Locally, I’m the chair of the Central American task force which very naturally ties into my work with the sanctuary movement and with the St. Louis Latin American Solidarity Committee.
Remembering my own history during the Holocaust, just doesn’t permit me to sit silent knowing of the events in Central America and that’s why I’ve chosen to work toward the goal of trying to end U.S. intervention in Central America and the support of refugees, fleeing oppression, torture and death in their homelands. In June 1985, together with several others, and one them is here, Mary, we were denied the opportunity to speak to Senator Danforth or to one of his aides and because of that we were arrested. When I got out of jail and returned to work the next day, I was told by Michael Hoare, the man that I work for, “thank you for doing this for all of us.” Isn’t it wonderful to be working for someone like that? Michael, I know you’re in the audience somewhere, thank you.
My involvement in the Sanctuary movement has its roots in the very best of Jewish principals which have led us through the years to aid people who are strangers. Somewhere in Jewish liturgy it says, “for you too were strangers in the land of Egypt.” We can be very proud of this honorable tradition, but we must continue it today.
I want to take just a couple minutes to share with you why I’m so concerned about Central American issues. U. S. Involvement in Central America has a long history, starting in the 1820’s. The primary reason for U. S. Intervention in Central America has been to develop and protect the investments of U. S. Corporations operating in that region. The U. S. dramatically increased its military aid to Central America in 1979 when the Somoza dictatorship in Nicaragua was toppled and replaced by the Sandinistas. Military and financial aid to El Salvador, in particular, has steadily increased. The U. S. Government is pumping 1.5 million dollars every day into El Salvador so that that government can fight a war against its own people. Someone who is better at arithmetic than I, broke that figure of $1.5 million down. That means we spend $43,000.00 per hour, $700.00 per minute, $11.00 per second. Yet with all that money we spend, the mayor of San Salvador has said that poverty is greater than ever. Amnesty International has reported and the Human Rights Action Network has responded to thirteen human rights violations in the last two months involving approximately 422 persons. That’s just in the last two months, in September and October, and that’s probably not everything that has happened there, but that is what Amnesty International has been able to uncover. To date, approximately four hundred thousand persons have disappeared, 125,000 children have been orphaned in the past ten years and approximately one million have been displaced from their land. By the way, I just heard earlier today that there is a group of displaced people trying to get back from Honduras into El Salvador and someone from St. Louis is down there trying to accompany that group. The information we have is still very sketchy.
Although military aid to Guatemala was stopped during the Carter administration because of that country’s well publicized human rights violations, funds have been sent in alternate forms and used for military action.
Given these facts, having met some of the refugees who have been in Sanctuary in St. Louis, and those who are in sanctuary here now, combined with my own experience, I feel a responsibility to do what I can to continue to educate myself and to help in the best way I know how. One of the many ways to help is with material aid and financially.
And this brings me to the monetary aspects of this award. In some ways it’s ironic that I should be getting this money. I’ve decided to put it to peaceful uses. I plan to give equal shares to, first of all, to CASA ARCO IRIS, a sanctuary house here in St. Louis, which currently houses two Guatemalan political refugee families and one newly arrived Salvadoran teenager; secondly, I plan to give one-fourth to El Salvador’s grass roots movement for returning refugees, for medical aid and the training of union organizers; thirdly, to the Ben Linder Memorial Fund which supports a rural development project in Nicaragua. Ben Linder, was a young American Jewish volunteer who was tragically killed by the U. S. supported Contras in April 1987 while he was constructing a hydro electric project, which was bringing water and electricity for the first time to San Jose de Bocay in Nicaragua. And lastly to the victims of the recent hurricane, which particularly severely affected the population in and around Bluefields in Nicaragua.
I mentioned earlier that one of the things I try to do is involve others and Dr. Hoad is aware that I’m going to involve you now and here it is. Here is a wonderful opportunity for you to show how much you care. At the end of the program tonight some of my friends and I will be standing outside in the lobby and we’ll be glad to answer any questions that you have and we welcome your donations and will forward them on to the people of Nicaragua in the Bluefields. If you want to write out a check we will tell you whom to make it out to.
When Michael Hoare, the man that I work for, and his wife, Nancy Collins learned that I would be getting this award and how I plan to disburse the funds, they told me they would match the amount, with one condition, that I spend the money on myself. And I’m going to do that, in January 1989 I hope to visit Nicaragua and Guatemala to gather first hand impressions. I want to thank Michael and Nancy for this opportunity. Nancy and Michael, how about standing up and why don’t you all join me in thanking them.
To summarize what I’ve said — the evolution of who I am has not been limited by fear and hate based on what happened, but rather has served as a catalyst. It awakened my conscience and has given rise to a belief and a hope for a future dedicated to humanity and to peace for all people everywhere.
My small contributions to peace and justice have helped my personal growth as a human being, helped in healing my wounds and given me an opportunity to revere the memory of my parents and all those others no longer with us. But, the fight is not over yet, the ultimate prize is still elusive. Your and my challenge is to care, to care creatively, to make this a safer, better place not only for ourselves, but for everyone.