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Hedy Epstein: a great friend of Palestine

Farewell Hedy Epstein, a great friend of Palestine.
Hedy Epstein in Bil'in
Hedy's activism took her to Bil'in in 2004, 2005 and 2007

Holocaust survivor Hedy Epstein is coming to the last stages of a remarkable life’s journey which began in hate-filled Nazi Germany more than 90 years ago. Her final days surrounded by loving friends in a Missouri hospice could not be more different from those frightening, early years that she endured at the hands of the fascists.

This diminutive 91-year-old icon of freedom and justice is loved and adored by everyone whose lives she has inspired or touched. As far as many Israelis are concerned, though, she can burn in hell. Some of them have actually said much, much worse about this frail, gentle, loving little Jewish lady who has put her life on the line continually for Palestine.

That such Israelis can be so vicious speaks volumes about the mentality that the Zionist creed evokes. The venom and hate channelled towards Hedy from some Israelis and their supporters is shocking; I have reeled at their vile comments on a Facebook wall set up as a living memorial to her.

Such abuse is not the work of some brainwashed, unsophisticated youth either; comments have been left by middle-aged mothers and fathers living in Israel. Their words are brazenly toxic and reveal far more about the hate-filled lives of the Zionists than anything about Hedy Epstein. Most of the hate-messages seem to come from extremist Jewish settlers living illegally in settlements across the occupied West Bank.

It is the sort of irrational hatred which confronted Hedy as a child in her home town of Frieberg. It was there, she once told me, that her maths teacher, in full Nazi uniform, pointed a gun at her in the classroom as he demanded that she provide the answer to a complicated equation.

Hedy was the only Jewish child in her class. Once Germany was in the full grip of the Nazis, she began to experience the evils of anti-Semitism first hand. How ironic, then, that after fleeing the fascists at the start of her life, she should in her final days be challenged by the same sort of hatred from fellow Jews living in Israel.

I did try and reason with them politely on Facebook but my attempts only attracted even more hate-filled messages on the tribute page. The administrators deleted these exchanges and reminded me that the page was set up as a tribute to Hedy’s life, which was full of love. I knew that they were right; this is not the time for heated debates with those who only know how to hate. That is what haters do; they try to distract you away from, and then destroy and tear down, the positives.

The Facebook tribute invites people to contribute so that Hedy can read their comments before it is too late: “It is not often we can honour a woman who is an inspiration and has had a life well-lived,” it explains. “She has had a long and remarkable journey that is coming to a close. If you have reminiscences of Hedy or photos, please post them here for her. Even if you never met her and want to leave a message, please do that as well.”

I remember Medea Benjamin, one of the leaders of anti-war NGO Code Pink, telling me, “The reason why Hedy’s voice is so powerful is that she knows the feeling of pain and terror.”

Hedy’s parents perished in one of the Nazi death camps and it would be some years before she found out about their fate; the information prompted her to visit Auschwitz many years later. The camp in German-occupied Poland was just one of a network of concentration and extermination camps built and operated by Hitler’s Third Reich during the Second World War.

The young Hedy Epstein was one of the lucky ones; she was able to get out of Germany as one of thousands of refugee Jewish children put on the “Kinder Transport” which arrived in Britain between 1938 and 1940. One of my most moving meetings with Hedy was outside Liverpool Street Station in London where she wanted to look at the Kinder Transport Memorial.

She told me how, as a teenager, she worked in Harrods and helped sew dresses for the then royal children, Princesses Elizabeth and Margaret. Her stories were always riveting and I’m sure she is keeping those around her today entertained with anecdotes about her full life.

Having married, Hedy went to America and had a family of her own. It was while living in the US that she heard about the Sabra and Shatila massacre of Palestinian refugees in Beirut in September 1982; she made enquiries to find out more about what had happened, and why. I was making a documentary film when she told me how she was so shocked by the images of Sabra and Shatila that she felt compelled to learn more about the injustices against the Palestinians; she also expressed the horror she felt on realising that they had become the second victims of Europe’s Holocaust.

As a Jewish woman she became a powerful voice for the Palestinian cause and a familiar figure on the West Bank with her efforts to highlight Israeli injustices. The following decades were spent on peace marches and lobby groups; she even acted as a human shield to protect the olive crops and farmers’ children as they made their way to school. She lobbied, she protested and she put her life on the line; on one occasion she was temporarily deafened when Israeli soldiers threw sound bombs at her.

Hedy learned how to swim in her 80s so that she could join the Free Gaza boat campaign, which wanted to break the siege of Gaza by sea. That is when I first met the legend that is Hedy Epstein. Sadly, she wasn’t able to make the eventual, successful journey on a small boat for health reasons; those of us who could were very sad as she waved us off from a Cypriot port.

Hedy Epstein in Cairo

Cairo, Egypt, December 31, 2009. Hedy with Yvonne Ridley, surrounded by Egyptian Police

We met again in Cairo where the US-based Code Pink organised a march to Gaza. On that occasion her efforts were thwarted by the brutal henchmen of the Hosni Mubarak regime.

Tellingly, Hedy once explained to me that the fear she saw in the eyes of Palestinian children when Israeli soldiers pointed their guns at them reminded her of the fear that the Nazis produced when they did the same to Jewish children all those years ago. It is a powerfully shocking parallel, and she is not the first Jewish person to have drawn it; Manchester MP Gerald Kaufman did so in a speech in the House of Commons when he condemned the Israeli onslaught against Gaza of 2008-9.

I am so sad that my dear friend is now coming to the end of her journey and a life fulfilled beyond expectations. If you are reading this now, dear Hedy, please know that your legacy will live on and your deeds and actions will be remembered long after the Zionist State has gone. As Nelson Mandela once observed, “It always seems impossible until it’s done.”

Farewell Hedy Epstein, a great friend of Palestine.

Note: This article has been amended to emphasise the fact that Auschwitz was built in German-occupied Poland, and was not a “Polish camp”.

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.

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