Holocaust survivor, activist Hedy Epstein dies at 91

The certificate of registration issued to Hedy Wachenheimer (later Epstein), which she wore in May 1939, when she boarded the Kindertransport.   

BY ROBERT A. COHN, Editor-in-Chief Emeritus

Hedy Epstein’s passion for the causes in which she believed was forged in the agony of the Holocaust, from which she escaped at the age of 14 via the Kindertransport.  Ms. Epstein died Thursday, May 26, at the age of 91.  She was at her Central West End home at the time of her passing and under the care of a circle of friends since her recently diagnosed cancer.

Her passing was noted with sadness by the St. Louis Holocaust Museum and Learning Center in a statement by its curator, Dan Reich, a longtime friend of Ms. Epstein. She had been a docent at the museum and a compelling speaker regarding her harrowing Holocaust experiences.

“Hedy’s experience as a survivor inspired a lifetime of activism on behalf of numerous causes throughout her life including fair housing, human rights and the shooting of Michael Brown in Ferguson.  In her later years much of her activism was focused on issues in support of the Palestinians.  This commitment made her a controversial figure in the St. Louis Jewish community and the Holocaust Museum and Learning Center,” said Reich.

He continued, “Maintaining her agreement that when she represented the HMLC she would focus only on her Holocaust experience, Hedy shared her survivor testimony since the museum’s inception.  Her final presentation was just a few weeks before her death.”

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Reich told the Jewish Light that after Ms. Epstein received a surprise diagnosis of advanced cancer, she invited him to her home, where she presented him with a number of items from her Holocaust experience as donations to the museum.  Among the items was a letter in shaky handwriting, which her mother had pushed through the cracks in the train that brought her parents to Auschwitz, where both were killed.  “My darling, I am hugging you and kissing you, and sending you a final goodbye,” the letter reads in part, a deeply poignant letter of goodbye from a mother to a child.  

Ms. Epstein was born Hedwig Wachenheimer on Aug. 2, 1924, in Freiburg, Germany, and was reared in nearby Kippenheim. Her father, Hugo, managed a dry goods company founded by his grandfather.  Her mother, the former Ella Eichel, was a homemaker. Both of Ms. Epstein’s parents would perish at Auschwitz after making sure their daughter could travel safely to England on the Kindertransport.  

As editor of the Light, I first met Hedy Epstein when she was the executive director of Freedom of Residence.  We were giving talks at a meeting on whether St. Louis County should adopt a fair housing law.  In the course of her remarks. Ms. Epstein made reference to seeing a document that her parents had been killed at Auschwitz.  She told me that she had never discussed her Holocaust experiences and agreed to a series of interviews on her experiences in Nazi Germany, where she was a 14-year-old girl in Kippenheim, Germany.

In  vivid descriptions, Ms. Epstein told of going to school on the morning of Nov. 9, 1938, the day of Kristallnacht, the Night of Broken Glass.  “There was a lot of tension, almost electricity in the air as I walked to school,” she said, noting that there were numerous Nazi Brownshirts suspiciously walking near Jewish-owned businesses, whose windows would be smashed in an orgy of violence that infamous night.

She described how she and the only other Jewish student at her school were harshly ordered to “get out” at a school assembly that morning.  She came home to find that her house was empty with the front door open.  The Nazis had arrested her father that night.  Hundreds of Jewish males age 15 and above were sent to Dachau.

During that horrifying night, when young Hedy was hiding in a walk-in wardrobe in her home, she told her mother, “I want to get out of here,” meaning out of Germany altogether.

Her parents, like those of thousands of other Jewish children, made the painful decision to send their daughter to England on the Kindertransport.  She was taken care of by some compassionate people in England.  She was later to learn that both of her parents were murdered at Auschwitz in 1944.

After the war, Ms. Epstein returned to Germany where she worked for the prosecution of the Nazi doctors at the Nuremberg War Crimes Tribunal—the Doctors Trial. In an interview, she described the unspeakable crimes and experiments of Nazi physicians.

Ms. Epstein married Arnold Epstein, a physicist, and they moved to St. Louis in 1969 for his work with Monsanto Co.  He died in 1977.  She is survived by a son,  Howard “Terry” Epstein, of Columbus, Ohio, and two granddaughters.

In the 1970s,  Ms. Epstein worked as a volunteer with the Freedom of Residence, Greater St. Louis Committee, a non-profit organization advocating for fair housing laws.  She worked for the organization as a volunteer, board member and later as executive director.

In the 1980s, she worked as a paralegal for Chackes and Hoare, a law firm that represented individuals in employment discrimination cases.  She spoke out against the Vietnam War, the bombing of Cambodia and against overly restrictive U.S. immigration policies.  She also spoke out against the 1982 massacre at Sabra and Shatila Palestinian refugee camp by a Lebanese Christian militia that had been allied with Israel in the Lebanon War.

In her later years, Ms. Epstein placed increasing focus on advocating for peace and against the Israeli occupation of the West Bank and Gaza. She was a co-founder of the St. Louis Chapter of Women in Black and of the St. Louis Chapter of Jewish Voice for Peace.

Epstein visited the West Bank several times, volunteering with the International Solidarity Movement and other pro-Palestinian groups. She participated in the Freedom Flotilla, an effort to break Israel’s naval blockade of the Gaza Strip. In a 2004 lecture at Stanford University, Epstein compared the Nazi treatment of Jews to the Israeli treatment of Palestinians. Her efforts were harshly criticized by a wide variety of pro-Israel organizations and individuals. 

She also got involved in the Black Lives Matter movement following the August 2014 shooting in Ferguson of teenager Michael Brown. Nine days after Brown’s death, Ms, Epstein, at the age of 90, was arrested along with other protesters who marched upon the Wainwright State Office Building downtown.

Ms. Epstein made several return visits to Kippenheim to give speeches on her Holocaust experiences.  She was regarded as an especially compelling speaker to children that were the same age she was on Kristallnacht.

She often said, “If we don’t try to make a difference, if we don’t speak up, if we don’t try to right the wrong that we see, we become complicit.  I don’t want to be guilty of not trying my best to make a difference.”

A memorial service will be held in Forest Park at a later date and time to be determined.  Donations in Ms. Epstein’s name can be made to Forest Park Forever to establish a permanent tribute, 5595 Grand Ave., St. Louis, Mo. 63112; American Friends Service Committee, 1501 Cherry Street, Philadelphia, Pa. 19102; American Civil Liberties Union, 125 Broad Street, 18th Floor, New York,  N.Y. 10004; and/or American Civil Liberties Union of Missouri Foundation, 454 Whittier Street, St. Louis, Mo. 63108.