Hedy Epstein was a Jewish Holocaust survivor and well-known advocate for human rights. Her life long commitment to peace and social justice were evident in her many op-eds, speeches, career choices, activism and willingness to be civilly disobedient when she believed it was necessary.
Hedy was born Hedwig Wachenheimer on August 24, 1924 in Freiburg, Germany. The only child of Hugo and (B)Ella (Eichel) Wachenheimer, Hedy was raised in the nearby village of Kippenheim. Hedy attended the village grammar school until third grade when her parents enrolled her in the more academically challenging Realgymnasium in nearby Ettenheim. Hedy rode her bicycle 3 miles to and from school until Kristallnacht, November 10, 1938, when she was expelled from school because she was Jewish.
As life worsened for all German Jews, Hedy’s parents tried in earnest to leave Germany, but the family was unable to secure visas and/or sponsors to emigrate to another country. They soon concluded that if one of the family members had an opportunity to leave the country, there was no choice but to do so. Hedy left Kippenheim on May 18, 1939 on the Kindertransport, a children’s transport to London, England. She was 14 years old and never saw her parents again. In October 1940, Hedy’s parents were deported to Camp de Gurs, France and in August 1942 and September 1942 her father and mother were sent to Auschwitz. Hedy never heard from them again. For the rest of her life, Hedy grieved the loss of her parents and extended family members, many of whom were also killed in the death camps, and said the heart-wrenching decision her parents made to send her away “gave me life a second time.” Hedy gave thousands of presentations about her Holocaust experiences in the hope that educating others could prevent similar tyranny in the future.
Hedy lived with a foster family and attended Edgeware High in England until she turned 16 when she was told she needed to leave school, leave the family home and begin supporting herself. Hedy lived in a hostel with other teenagers and found work in a munitions factory. With other young refugees, she belonged to an organization, Free German Youth, that was concerned with re-educating Germans after the war. Hedy credited her participation in this organization as the beginning of her political education.
Hedy was able to communicate directly with her parents through letters while they remained in Kippenheim. After their deportation the letters were sent through the Red Cross.
After the war, Hedy returned to Germany to work for the U. S. Government in the Censorship Division reading incoming and outgoing mail in an effort to identify and locate Nazis. In 1946, Hedy became a Research Analyst with the Nuremberg Trials, looking for documentary evidence to be used in the trial of former Nazi doctors who conducted medical experiments on concentration camp inmates. The evidence was horrific and often traumatizing, but Hedy was proud of her contributions to help bring these criminals to justice. Later in life, Hedy gave a presentation titled, “Medicine Gone Awry: Not to Heal, But to Destroy Was Their Aim,” about her work in Nuremberg.
Hedy immigrated to the United States in May, 1948 and quickly became involved in the issues and controversies that were dividing the country. She lived first in New York City, then St. Paul, Minnesota, where she was admitted to the University of Minnesota despite her lack of a high school diploma. In the 1950s she worked for the United Restitution Organization assisting Holocaust survivors in filing their restitution claims with the German government and assisting refugees trace any relatives who survived the war. In the 1960s, she became involved in anti-Vietnam War activities and identified as a war resister. Hedy moved to St. Louis, Missouri in 1969 with her husband and young son. She began working with the Greater St. Louis Committee for Freedom of Residence, a fair housing organization, and eventually served as its executive director. The organization was responsible for the case that led to the precedent-setting U.S. Supreme Court decision in 1968 making fair housing the law of the land. Hedy received the U. S. Department of Housing and Urban Development’s Fair Housing Achievement Award in 1975.
Hedy received her B.A. and M.A. degrees in Urban Affairs from St. Louis University in 1976 and 1979. From 1977 to 1979 she served on the Missouri Advisory Committee to the U. S. Civil Rights Commission and served as a Human Rights Officer in 1978 and 1979. Local television station KMOX honored her with the Call to Action Community Service Award in 1978. She received the Ruth C. Porter Memorial Award, also in recognition of her fair housing work, in 1979.
Hedy’s activism was clearly focused on the dispossessed, those she could relate to as a German Jew who survived the Holocaust yet lost her parents and many family members. Her fears, pain, upheavals and losses informed her need to speak out for others regardless of ethnicity or religion. For Hedy, remembering was not enough:
In 1980 and 1990 Hedy visited Camp de Gurs, Camp les Milles and Drancy, in France and Dachau in Germany and Auschwitz in Poland, all camps where her family members were imprisoned. Later she visited Camp de Rivesaltes, a transit camp where her mother was interned before her final journey to Auschwitz. Hedy wrote about her experience visiting the camps in the 1980s as part of a series of publications, “Pilgrimage Into the Past: A Survivor’s Return Visit to Europe,” published in the St. Louis Jewish Light and in January, 1995 penned her reflection on the anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz.
Hedy worked for social justice and human rights in Central America, visiting Nicaragua and Guatemala as part of a Witness for Peace Delegation, and she traveled to Cambodia as part of an international interfaith peace delegation, both in 1989. She advocated against the Haitian deportations in the 1990s, and felt so strongly about the plight of the Haitian refugees that she risked arrest during a protest at the federal courthouse in East St. Louis, Illinois. Hedy also participated in the local sanctuary movement on behalf of Nicaraguans and Guatemalans fleeing violence, and she opposed the Iraqi sanctions and the ensuing wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. In 2002, Hedy was a founding member of the St. Louis Instead of War Coalition. Hedy became a vocal advocate for Palestinian rights and traveled to the West Bank to witness first-hand life under Israeli occupation, which she vehemently opposed.
Beginning in 2003, Hedy traveled several times to the West Bank to advocate for Palestinian rights. She volunteered with the International Solidarity Movement, a Palestinian-led organization committed to resisting the Israeli occupation of Palestinian land using nonviolent, direct-action methods and principles. She co-founded the St. Louis Palestine Solidarity Committee and founded the St. Louis Women In Black chapter. In her 80s, Hedy participated in demonstrations in the village of Bil’in facing the Israeli Army as they showered peaceful demonstrators with tear gas and sound bombs. She participated in the Gaza Freedom Flotilla, and at 85 traveled to Cairo, Egypt to take part in the Gaza Freedom March. When the Egyptian government denied the marchers access to Gaza, Hedy began a hunger strike, which others soon followed.
In August 2014, 90-year-old Hedy was civilly disobedient again. Opposed to the way protesters were being treated in Ferguson, Missouri following the death of Michael Brown, she joined a peaceful demonstration but was arrested for failure to disperse. When asked why she was willing to put herself out there at her age, she replied, “Why not me?”
Ever-courageous, her admonition to any who would listen still rings true, “Never forget; Don’t hate; Don’t be a bystander.”