“This is how I’m entering my tenth decade of life!”
Those were Hedy Epstein’s words as she was handcuffed by police in Ferguson, Missouri last month. It wasn’t the first time she’d been arrested as a protester, and it might not be the last.
You’d expect even the most passionate human rights activist to slow their pace at the age of 90, but Epstein shows no sign of slowing down. Her most recent arrest in Ferguson, for “failure to disperse,” happened as she protested the circumstances surrounding the police shooting of an unarmed black teenager, Michael Brown. “I’ve been doing this since I was a teenager,” she told The Nation. “I didn’t think I would have to do it when I was ninety.”
Righting wrongs has been an imperative in Epstein’s life for a good reason. She is a Holocaust survivor whose parents sent her to England on a Kindertransport, a British rescue operation that saved some 10,000 children from the Nazis. She never saw her family again; it is believed that they perished in Auschwitz.
After the war, Epstein left England and returned to Germany to work as a research analyst for U.S. prosecutors during the Nuremberg Medical Trial. She went on to become a wife and mother, all the while working tirelessly for justice in everything from fair housing and abortion rights to anti-war efforts.
These days Epstein travels across the country as a speaker on human rights issues and remains involved in several organizations.
Epstein spoke with Senior Planet by phone from her home in Missouri about fighting the good fight and the gift of forgiveness.
How old are, and how old do you feel?
I’m 90, but sometimes I feel like I’m nine!
You’ve seen a lot. How do you take inspiration from bad circumstances?
I know what it feels like when you are discriminated against and when you are the other, and I just can’t stand it. I feel that I have been very fortunate in my life – there have been ups and downs, but that’s par for the course. That doesn’t mean I can be smug because I’ve been privileged. I can’t stand idly by when I see something is wrong. I mean, I can’t change the world, I can’t change everything, but I feel that I have a responsibility to do what I can to make a difference.
You’ve spent decades fighting for social justice. Where do you think that devotion comes from?
I think my parents were my first teachers. I sometimes protested because at a very young age, I thought it was unfair that they could punish me for things that they didn’t approve of. There were things they did that I didn’t approve of – why wasn’t I entitled to punish them? It thought that was very unfair and I think that has sort of been my attitude about life. Things need to be fair, people need to be treated equally, regardless what their status in life is.
You’ve been active in many protests. Tell us about your arrest in Ferguson.
I knew that there was going to be a gathering in downtown St. Louis and that we were going to go the governor’s office and ask him to de-escalate the violence that was taking place in Ferguson. Getting arrested was the furthest thing from my mind.
I’ve been arrested before, and in each situation, I knew that during the protest there would be that possibility, and my heart would beat a mile a minute. This time I don’t think I had one extra heartbeat. You know, I wasn’t expecting arrest. We were going to go speak to the governor! We had every right to do so, and his office is in a public building paid for with taxpayer’s money. When we got there, the police and security people were blocking the entrance. About 200 of us congregated, and at some point they announced that the governor and his staff were not in the office and asked us to disperse. I could feel the electricity in the air and I thought, something is going to happen. I could see the police and security people standing straighter; they were tense. Next thing I knew, I felt a police officer behind my back putting me in handcuffs. They were given orders to arrest us; they did what they were told to do. They weren’t violent – but they could have put those cuffs on a little more loosely!
When was your last time you spent the night in jail?
Last time I spent the night in jail was back in the 90s. It had to do with the Iran war, and about nine of us protested at a military airport and wanted to talk to the person in charge at the airport, which was denied. We sat on the ground in the bitter cold in November for two hours before we were arrested.
What other protests have you been involved in?
I’m very much involved in the Israeli-Palestinian situation. I work with two organizations here in St. Louis; I’m a founding member of both. When I was protesting in Palestine, I was treated very badly by the Israeli security people – I was stripped and internally searched because they saw me as a terrorist and security risk. I was 79 years old then, so I was still young and sprite!
Let’s talk about forgiveness. What role has it played in your life?
It’s a long story. In 1945 when the war was over, I returned to Germany to work for the American government. When the train stopped in Germany, there were little children on the platform begging for candy and gum. Some of the people on the train were like me, refugees from the Germany and Austria, refugees from the Nazis who were returning to Germany. Some of these people gave the children whatever it was they had, and I became just livid, How dare you! How can you give anything to these Nazis? They were maybe five or ten years old, hardly Nazis, but maybe their parents were. I was so full of hatred against all Germans and that hatred stayed for a very long time.
I finally got rid of it in the spring of 1970. Here’s what changed it. The Vietnam War was happening, and I had been against it from day one. In the spring of 1970, it had become public knowledge that as part of that war we had been carpet bombing Cambodia, practically bombing it out of existence. Well, I picketed, I marched, I wrote letters, sent telegrams to my congressional people and to my president and nothing happened to me, and nothing happened to my family. Then my thoughts traveled across the ocean and back to Germany and I thought, if the German population had done during World War II what I had been doing during the Vietnam War, they would have ended up in a concentration camp; they might have lost their lives. How could I condemn an entire people for not being willing to risk their lives when I don’t know that I’m willing to risk my life. And with that, the hatred just disappeared.
Hatred is a very negative emotion. It’s not only harmful to the person who you hate, it’s also very self-destructive. I like to think that since I gave up that hatred, I’ve become a happier person. I leave it up to others to decide whether or not I’m a better person.
What role does technology play in your life?
Email is about all I can do. No social media. I am technically challenged!
What’s the best thing about aging?
You don’t care anymore what other people might think about you. You’re not trying to please the whole world, which you can’t do anyway. And I don’t care anymore, especially about the awful emails and social media I received because of the headlines after my arrest: 90-year-old Holocaust Survivor Arrested. Mind you, I’ve gotten lots of support, but also a significant number of nasty emails and phone calls from Jewish people who claim that I am not a Holocaust survivor because I was not in a concentration camp – they are focusing on that instead of dealing with issue at hand, and the issue at hand is Ferguson.
I don’t respond to the emails or calls, but if I’m speaking at an event and am attacked, I just give them the citation from the The Holocaust Museum in Washington D.C., which states that anyone who lived under the Nazi regime is a Holocaust survivor; I lived like that from 1933 to 1939. If you disagree, take it up with them. I don’t care!
What does aging with attitude mean to you?
There are people who complain because the sun is shining, and when the sun is not shining they complain because it isn’t shining. I’m happy when the sun shines, but I can accept the fact that it can’t shine all the time – although I wish it would. Accept what is, but hope that it can be better.
Heddy’s Long History of Activism
In July 2014, as she was turning 90, the Missouri Historical Society interviewed Hedy Epstein about her activist past. (Video link for mobile.)
Featured photo: Reuters
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