Commitment to Activism

Holocaust survivor Hedy  Epstein, 90, is arrested during a protest of the Michael Brown shooting in St. Louis. (Nancy Cambria/MCT/Newscom)

Holocaust survivor Hedy Epstein, 90, is arrested during a protest of the Michael Brown shooting in St. Louis.
(Nancy Cambria/MCT/Newscom)

Hedy Epstein made headlines around the world last week when she was arrested at a protest in St. Louis.

The 90-year-old Holocaust survivor was one of nine people arrested in front of Missouri Gov. Jay Nixon’s office at an Aug. 18 protest against the governor’s handling of the fallout from the Michael Brown shooting.

When she was taken to the police station for booking, a local friend was notified, and that friend called Epstein’s son, a call that Epstein said was probably not too surprising to her son given her history of political activism.

“In the past, when I’ve been arrested, my heart beat a mile a minute, and this time I was very calm, like I was going to a picnic or something,” the elder Epstein said of being handcuffed and transported to the police station for booking.

Epstein spent the first years of her life in Germany. When Hitler came to power, she was 8 years old, her personal website documents. Six years later, her family placed her on a children’s transport to England and within a few months, her parents and other family members were sent to a concentration camp in France. After two years of correspondence through letters, her family was transferred to Auschwitz, and she never heard from them again.

Growing up in England during World War II, Epstein began her political education at a young age, and when she moved to the United States in 1948, she was already very interested in human rights and social justice issues.

When she moved to St. Louis with her husband in the 1960s, she took a job with the local fair housing agency, working to ensure that everyone might have equal access to housing.

“It’s not only something I did 9-to-5,” said Epstein of her involvement in civil rights advocacy in St. Louis. “It was a 24-hour involvement.”

St. Louis, from her experience, has long been a troubled city, but with the shooting of Michael Brown, “the cup runneth over,” she said.

“If I walk down the street with my white skin and a policeman comes by, he’ll probably say, “Good afternoon, ma’am. How are you?’ [But] if an African-American walks down the street at the same time in the same place, he’s immediately suspected of having stolen something, having murdered somebody, having committed some kind of crime. And why? Only because he has black skin,” said Epstein.

“This kind of violence has to stop,” she said of the shooting of the unarmed Brown and police actions against protest attendees. “Because violence begets more violence, and it’s just, it’s really scary.”

In addition to her involvement in civil rights issues in St. Louis, Epstein is part of the speakers bureau of the St. Louis Holocaust Museum and Learning Center and has gained notoriety in the past for her involvement in pro-Palestinian causes, having made five trips to Israel, according to her website. She has opposed both Israeli settlements and the security fence along the West Bank.

While Epstein said the only thing that kept her from attending the rallies right from the start was the festivities her friends and family had planned around her 90th birthday, she noticed the vast majority of the Jewish community was not nearly as eager to travel north to Ferguson.

A letter with more than 50 signatures from St. Louis’ Jewish community condemning both racism and the looting that had plagued the protests was released by the St. Louis Jewish Community Relations Council on Aug. 19. But the smallness of the Jewish presence at the rallies was noted by one St. Louis Jewish Light guest essayist, who said in an Aug. 13 column that she had only seen three familiar Jewish faces when she attended. An Aug. 24 Jewish Federation of St. Louis-Jewish Community Relations Council event titled “A response to Ferguson” was canceled late last week.

For now, Epstein said her phone has been ringing off the hook with interview requests from around the globe, but she plans on heading back to the protest line soon.

By then, said Epstein, “hopefully, it won’t be necessary anymore.”

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