- 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...
- 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"
- 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
- 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
- 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
- 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
- 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
- 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
- Silvia Cattori: Thanks for this moving interview.
- 1) http://www.kindertransport.org/history.html
- 2) About Hedy Epstein's abuse by Israeli security officers: