January 06, 2010

In honor of Hedy Epstein

Hedy Epstein, 85, barely escaped the death camps as a child. Last week she was in Cairo as part of the Gaza Freedom March, and started a hunger strike to protest The Mubarak regime's refusal to let the marchers into Gaza to the Rafah border, which the Egyptians control. She has visited the West Bank many times and is committed Palestine solidarity activist.

Because she is Jewish and a holocaust survivor, two attributes that confer a certain amount of symbolic capital in our holocaust obsessed culture, Zionists hate here with a particular passion and conduct against her outlandish smear jobs,  equating her to the camps' capos, attributing to her statements she never made, arguing with her right to be called a survivor, psychoanalyzing her, and more. If you like gutter journalism, you would appreciate, for example, Lee Kaplan's overflowing sewage from 2007. After her stay in Cairo, the Jerusalem Tawdry found room for a pseudo-scientific analysis of her "sex appeal" (Because Zionism and sexism, lest you forget, go together like horse and carriage), and, noblesse oblige, labeled her antisemitic.

The most mind boggling charge against her is that she "instrumentalizes" the holocaust, this from the political movement that gave us the Eichmann Show Trial, Yad vashem, the holocaust Museum, the Simon Wisenthal Center, and a whole holocaust industry. Of course, unlike these slick, multi million propaganda operations, Epstein has every right to tell her personal story and her understanding of her story (as does every other survivor of every horror).

I am not going to even attempt to defend Epstein from these writers, who are beneath contempt. But rather, take this as another opportunity to let her tell you her perspective, in her own words.  Excerpts from a 2008 interview below:

Hedy Epstein: 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? ...

Silvia Cattori: For the Palestinians in Hebron or Nablus, to see a Holocaust survivor traveling 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...

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...

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...

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....

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: 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. (The full interview is on Information Clearinghouse)


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