An interview with Hedy Epstein
Hedy Epstein, is a German Jewish Holocaust survivor, born in 1924, whose parents were sent to Auschwitz in 1942, where they perished. In 1948, Hedy Epstein went to live in United States. In 2003, she decided to make a trip to Palestine. Shocked by the oppression that the Israeli government is imposing on the Palestinians, she is, since then, devoting herself to make it known to the world. In the interview she gave to the Swiss journalist Silvia Cattori, Hedy Epstein speaks, with her gentle and mild voice, about her last travel to Palestine after a moving visit to one of several concentration camps to which her parents were deported. And she said: “I would like to dedicate this interview to the children of Gaza, whose parents cannot protect them or send them away to safety as my parents did when they sent me to England in May 1939 on a Kindertransport” (1)
Silvia Cattori: In 2004, after the humiliating and dehumanizing abuse you had to undergo at Tel Aviv airport, where you had to get undressed and were internally searched as you explained it to me in our first conversation (2), you were very upset and you declared: “I will never return to Israel”. But since then you have been back four more times. Last summer you were there again. How was it possible?
Hedy Epstein: I have never felt such anger after what happened to me and the friend travelling with me at the Ben Gurion airport in January 2004.
While on the plane, still full of rage, I wrote on every page in the magazines provided by the airline “I am a Holocaust survivor and I will ‘never again’ return to Israel.” I sometimes pressed so hard on the paper with my pen, that I tore the page. It was one small way to vent some of my anger.
After I returned home, still very angry, traumatized, I decided to get some counselling, which helped me to work through my anger and allowed me to plan my next trip back to the West Bank just a few months later, in the summer of 2004. I have been back every year since then, a total of five times since 2003. I have gone back because it is the right thing for me to do; to witness and to let the Palestinians know there are some people who care enough to come back and stand with them in their struggle against Israel’s occupation. Palestinians have asked me upon my return home, to tell the American people what I have seen and experienced, because the American people don’t know what is happening, because the media does not inform them. I made a commitment to do so and have taken every opportunity to honour this commitment.
Silvia Cattori: What was your interpretation of the fact that the Israeli officers treated you in such a brutal way?
Hedy Epstein: They tried to intimidate me, to silence me, hoping I would never come back. Though momentarily they may have succeeded, ultimately they did not. To quote General McArthur, an American army general, who said “I shall return”, I have returned four times since the January 2004, event at the Tel Aviv airport, on my way back from Israeli occupied territory, and will continue to return. They will not be able to stop me. And, so, I plan to aboard ship to Gaza in a few months.
Silvia Cattori: Was it not too traumatic for a sensitive person like you to go back to the West Bank and see the Isreali soldiers humiliating, threatening, killing, and destroying Palestinians lives and properties?
Hedy Epstein: As an American I am a privileged person. I am very much aware of this and feel uncomfortable wearing this cloak, especially when I am in Palestine, conscious of the fact that I can come and go any time I want to, a privilege denied the Palestinians, who have great difficulty in moving from one place to another, restricted by road blocks, check points, the imprisoning 25 foot high wall, by young Israeli soldiers who can decide who can pass and who cannot, who can go to school, to the hospital, to work, to visit family and friends.
I have seen the long lines of Palestinians at the Bethlehem checkpoint. I spoke to a 41 year old man, who told me he works three days a week; in order to get to work on time, he gets up at 2:30 A.M. and arrives at the checkpoint at 3:15 A.M. to wait in line, a long line, with others, for the checkpoint to open around 5:30 A.M. He has to come this early because many people line up. Sometimes the Israeli soldiers allow no one to go through. He would like to work full time, but there are no jobs in Bethlehem.
During each of my five visits I have spent some time in Jerusalem. I have been painfully aware how increasingly its current size and boundaries share very little with the city’s historic parameters, Israeli only settlements, such as Har Homa and Gilo are referred to as Jerusalem neighbourhoods. East Jerusalem is dotted with Israeli flags flying from homes from which Palestinians were “removed,” thus judaizing the area more and more.
During my last visit, in August 2007, I only had time for a brief visit with my dear Palestinian friend, and her husband in Ramallah. During prior visits, I and some of my American travel companions were their houseguests for several days, basking in their hospitality, typical Palestinian hospitality, which is unlike any other I have ever experienced anywhere. The wife, ever cheerful in the past, seemed downcast, though she did not complain, simply stating “Life is more difficult since my husband is no longer working.” In a conversation later, alone with her husband, he stated that he left his job in order to go to school and study. There is truth in both statements, but the husband’s comments reflect an effort to salvage and maintain some of his dignity.
I also visited and stayed overnight with my Palestinians friends and their children in Bethlehem. The TV, which is always on, at one point caught our attention. There was a story about Jews from all over the world, immigrating to Israel. There were many small Israeli flags waving and welcoming the new citizens of Israel arriving at the Ben Gurion airport in Tel Aviv. A big banner in the background spelled out in English and Hebrew “Welcome Home”.
As the story continued, we all stared at the TV, silently. Then one of us, I don’t remember who, broke the heavy silence, asking no one in particular “What about the return of the Palestinians?”
At the regular weekly non-violent demonstration in Bi’lin, as the teargas tossed at us by young Israeli soldiers, choking us, as we all ran to get away from it, I overheard a conversation between two Palestinian boys, one saying to the other “I don’t want to die” “Nor do I” said the other. Their fear has stayed with me. What will happen to them? What is their future?
And yet, despite the almost hopelessness of the situation that might never change, Palestinian people are amazingly strong. Even though the Israeli oppression goes on, and gets worse, with new types of military oppression, the Palestinians have not given up; they are going on living there.
They are an amazing, resilient people. They will never give up. The Israeli may kill many of them, destroy their homes, destroy their lives, but they will never be able to destroy their hope for a different way of existence, for a better way of living together.
No matter what the Israelis do, they cannot take away the hope and the dignity of the Palestinian people. The Israelis have the power, the Palestinian people have dignity and despite all odds, still have hope. The Israelis have the airplanes from which they drop bombs in Gaza, they have bulldozers made here in the United States, not far from my home, they can do all those things, but despite this imbalance of power, the Israelis will never be able to destroy Palestinians’ hope and dignity.
Silvia Cattori: For the Palestinians in Hebron or Nablus, to see a Holocaust survivor travelling in such precarious conditions to express to them her love and solidarity, is it not something very unusual and touching?
Hedy Epstein: I feel it is important for the Palestinians who are not allowed to leave Palestine, who are living under the Israelis military occupation, in such horrendous conditions, to know that there are people in other parts of the world who condemn the Israeli oppression, who care enough to come there, and to share their difficulties and sufferings, even if it is for a very short time.
I am impressed again and again to discover that Palestinians know so much more about what is going on in the world. They are better informed than the American people.
Most Palestinians I have met have asked me to tell the American people what I have seen and experienced, because the American people do not know, because the media does not inform them. I have made a commitment to do that. I have given talks at high schools, universities, churches, community groups, in the United States, as well as in Germany (in German). I urge people to go to Palestine to see and experience life there. It is a life changing experience. They will come back a different person, more aware, more sensitive and hopefully challenged to make a difference.
Though I am not a religious Jew (I consider myself a secular humanist), I know a little bit about Jewish tradition, which teaches that: “We’re permitted neither to give up hope, nor to abandon the work we’ve started, even if we cannot complete the task ourselves”.
And so, the situation, especially in Gaza, is so awful, I feel I must continue to be a moral voice, must continue to have the courage to take a public stand against Israel’s crimes against humanity and the misinterpretations provided by the media. Israel would not be able to carry out its crimes against humanity without the United States, the world, permitting it to do so and the mass media, which, with few exceptions, dehumanizes Palestinians and instills fear, ignorance and loathing of them and their culture.
Having met Palestinians, experienced their hospitality, warmth, dignity and even humor, it is incumbent upon me to bring their voices, their experiences to anyone who will listen to me, to bear witness about the Wall, the land confiscations, the demolished homes, the violation of water rights, the restrictions of freedom of movement. The future of peace cannot be awaited passively, but rather from commitments and struggles for justice. There is no peace without justice.
Nadav Tamir, the Israeli Consul General in Boston, wrote in the Boston Globe newspaper in November 2007 “This is no longer an issue of being pro-Palestinian or pro-Israeli, but rather a confrontation between those who prefer peace and those who prefer bloodshed. It is time to choose sides.”
Silvia Cattori: You said that you plan to be aboard ship to Gaza in a few months (3)?
Hedy Epstein: Oh yes, definitely. There is nothing which can stop me. I am determined to go and I am going to take swimming lessons, just in case. The “Free Gaza” boat could not go last summer for different reasons. I think it is important for all of the people who are invited on the boat, to take that chance to show to the world what Israel is really doing in Gaza and to express their intention to break the illegal siege.
The Media is so controlled – probably by Israel as well – that, whatever the power that be in United State or in Europe, they never convey what is really happening every day on the ground; how much suffering is caused by the extreme oppression, what is happening to the people, not only in Gaza, but to a lesser extent maybe to the people in the West Bank. The world needs to know, and if we can be that medium, to let the world finally know what is happening, then it is important for us to play that role.
Silvia Cattori: While most countries are isolating the Hamas authorities in the Gaza strip, and cutting them off from the most essential humanitarian aid, the Hamas takeover in Gaza does it not represent an obstacle for you to go there?
Hedy Epstein: No. Hamas was elected in a democratic way, there were neutral observers there and they did not find anything wrong with these elections. They have been democratically elected. As you know, Israel and the United States wanted this election but they where hoping for a different outcome. They did not like the fact that Hamas won the election. For that reason, they are attacking Hamas and do not want to recognize it and they are carrying out a sort of collective punishment against the 1.5 million people in Gaza. There is a huge humanitarian crisis. The Israeli army controls all the exit points from Gaza to Israel, to Jordan, to Egypt. In fact they control the air, the sea and the land.
Almost nothing is allowed to come in, and nothing is allowed to go out. Gaza is essentially an agricultural community. Farmers in Gaza, who grow flowers, strawberries and tomatoes for instance, spend a lot of time and energy and money to grow these products and cannot sell them! And so the flowers wilt and the strawberries and tomatoes spoil.
The Israeli government pretends that it no longer occupies Gaza. But that is not true.
Silvia Cattori: For those people who do not know, or do not want to know, what the Israeli government is really doing, your voice is of utmost importance. Indeed, a person like you, who can give testimony about the Nazi oppression and about the present Zionist oppression, able to look at the facts with a very honest spirit, is very rare!
Hedy Epstein: I do not make comparisons between Nazi oppression and Zionist oppression; though, I have been accused of doing that. Instead I speak of the lessons learned from the Holocaust. I credit my experiences as a Holocaust survivor as the leading influence behind my efforts to promote human rights and social justice. For me “remembering is not enough”, which is the title of my autobiography, published in German, in Germany in 1999, under the title “Erinnern ist nicht genug.” (4) Remembering also has to have a present and a future perspective.
What is the lesson to be learned from the Holocaust? I know what it is to be oppressed. Nobody can do everything, but I feel that it is incombent upon me to do as much as I can, to do the right thing, to, in this case, stand with the Palestinians in their struggle against Israeli oppression, under which they exist and suffer every day and night.
Why did I survive? To just sit here and say: yes, the situation is bad, somebody shsould do something about it. I firmly believe that each and every one of us, including me, has to be that someone, who tries to improve the situation.
And this is not to say that the sufferings of the Palestinians are more or less important than the sufferings of the people in some other places. But I have only so much energy and so much time each day. Rather than dispersing my energy here and there, I decided just to concentrate it on the Israeli and Palestinian issue.
Silvia Cattori: On your way to Palestine, you went first to France to visit one of the concentration camps to wich your parents were deported? Was it your first visit?
Hedy Epstein: Let my clarify. In 1940, on 22 October, all the Jews from the area of South West Germany, where I come from, were deported to the concentration camp, Camp de Gurs, located in the foothills of the Pyrenaen Mountains, in what was then Vichy France, which collaborated with the Germans. Men and women were separated by barbed wire. In late March 1941, my father was transferred to Camp les Milles, near Marseille. In July 1942, my mother was transferred to Camp de Rivesaltes, near Perpignan.
In September 1980, I visited Camp de Gurs, the Dachau concentration camp (my father was there for four weeks after Crystal Night or the Night of the Broken Glass in 1938) and Auschwitz. In 1990, I visited Camp les Milles, where my father was until his deportation to Auschwitz via Drancy (a transit camp near Paris).
Until August 2007, I was not able to visit Camp de Rivesaltes, where my mother was, for about two months in 1942, until her deportation, via Drancy, to Auschwitz. And, last summer, with friends, I went to visit Camp de Rivesaltes for the first time.
In a letter, dated August 9, 1942, my father told me: “Tomorrow I am being deported to an unknown destination. It may be a long time before you hear from me again…” In a letter, dated September 1, 1942, my mother told me exactly the same. And, then, I received another postcard from my mother, dated September 4, 1942, in which she writes: “I am travelling to the East and sending you a final goodbye…” These were the last communications from my parents.
When, in 1956, I learned that my parents were sent to the Auschwitz concentration camp, in Poland, I could only assume that, after they had spent almost two years in the concentration camps in France, they were physically in a very bad condition, and that they were probably sent straight to the gas chamber upon their arrival there.
Silvia Cattori: What was your feeling?
Hedy Epstein: I was amazed at the immense size of the camp, which could house 30,000 people, and its deplorable condition. Some of the barracks no longer exist; others are falling apart, roofs missing, walls falling down, and wild vegetation everywhere. Desolation everywhere. Wind turbines nearby stood like sentinels, watching over the demise of what was once home to a hapless people, to my mother.
From correspondence with my mother at the time she was there, I knew in wich two barracks she was housed. One barrack I never found; it probably does not exist anymore. The other one, barrack number 21, I found it.
The entrance to the barracks is elevated, making entry difficult. But, as though to invite me to enter barrack Nr, 21, a wooden board was leaning up to the entry. With the help of my friends I was able to maintain my balance as I tip-toed, like a ballet dancer, into the barrack. I touched the walls, maybe where my mother might have touched it, I picked up some of the debris to take home with me, tried to imagine what it must have been like for my mother. Later, I left the barrack at the opposite end, jumping out and into an overgrown area, stopped by thorny growth, holding me in place. One of my friends poignantly remarked “The building doesn’t want you to go away”.
Silvia Cattori: Was the visit of Camp de Rivesaltes beneficial to you, since it made you closer to the soul of your beloved mother?
Hedy Epstein: I felt very close to my mother when I was there; I imagined how she moved around in the camp, what it was like for her. She was there from July to September 1942, a time when it is very hot. I remembered that my mother suffered from the summer heat when we were still living together in Kippenheim. It was very hot when I visited this camp. As so often in my life, I was reminded of the “unearned privileged” life I lead. Thanks to my parents’ great unselfish love, I escaped what they had to endure. By sending me to England on a Kindertransport in May 1939, my parents literally gave me life a second time.
Silvia Cattori: It was a very moving visit for you, wasn’t it? A come back to a very sad period of your life, away from your parents!
Hedy Epstein: Before I left Germany on a Kindertransport to England, my parents gave me many admonitions, to be good, to be honest, always ending with “We will see each other again soon.” I believed that we would see each other again soon, whether my parents believed that, I will never know. My parents and I corresponded directly with each other until England declared war on Germany on September 3, 1939. Then it was no longer possible to correspond directly with each other. Instead we exchanged 25 word messages through the Red Cross.
After my parents were sent to the camps in Vichy France, we could correspond directly with each other again. However, my parents were allowed only to write one page, per person, per week. I could write as much and as often as I wanted to. My parents never wrote about the horrible conditions under which they were forced to “exist,” I learned about that only after the war was over.
Thinking back on that time in England, I was a very sad little girl, not allowing myself to really get in touch with my feelings and fears. As I told you, each of my parents in their last letters to me before their final deportation (to Auschwitz), each of them wrote: “It will probably be a long time before you hear from me again”
How long is a long time? A week, a month, a year, ten years! Since I wanted so very much to be reunited with my parents again, I kept on telling myself: “A long time is not over yet, I have to wait some more”. I was in denial. I was not able to accept the inevitable, my parents’ demise. That was really a psychological game I played with myself, it was a way for me to survive, a self-preservation mechanism.
It was not until September 1980, when I visited Auschwitz and stood on the place, called “Die Rampe” (The ramp), where the cattle cars arrived in the 1940s, the people were forced to get out and Dr. Mengele and his cohorts made a selection as to who will live and who will die (in the gas chambers), that I was able to accept the fact that my parents and other family members did not survive. That is a very long time to be in denial. Perhaps the denial was in lieu of the usual mourning process.
Silvia Cattori: Thanks for this moving interview.