"What is the lesson to be learned from the Holocaust?"
An interview with Hedy Epstein
By Silvia Cattori
" -- - 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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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 mourning process.
Silvia Cattori: Thanks for this moving interview.
2) About Hedy Epstein's abuse by Israeli security officers:
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