Last Sunday at the memorial service for Hedy Epstein, an old cardboard suitcase lay open on a table in her favorite park in the heart of St. Louis. Inside it, arrayed on her mother’s bright white monogrammed tablecloth, were a few pieces of silverware, the tea set she played with as a little girl, her mother’s elegant beaded purse, her school records and baby pictures. These were the cherished items that Hedy carried out of Germany in May 1939 when she was 14.
The Nazi official who oversaw her packing and wired her suitcase shut forbade her from bringing the stamp collection she couldn’t bear to leave behind. Late that night, huddled under the covers of her bed with a flashlight, Hedy took every stamp out of her albums, snuck upstairs, and slipped them one by one through a sliver of an opening into the suitcase.
It was an act of bravery, given what she had witnessed of Nazi power. Her math teacher, one of Adolf Hitler’s paramilitary SS men, had pointed his revolver at her when he asked her questions in class, and stormtroopers had ransacked her home, breaking windows, furniture, and dishes. She had seen Jewish men whipped and marched through the streets, including her father Hugo, who returned from a four-week ordeal in Dachau with his head shaved and his body so swollen from beatings that her mother Ella had to cut his filthy clothes off of him with scissors.
Hedy was one of thousands of German Jewish children sent off to England in the massive humanitarian effort known as Kindertransport. Sad, angry, and confused, teenage Hedy lashed out at her parents in her last moments with them, accusing them of not loving her and wanting to get rid of her. Minutes later she watched through the train window as they ran alongside her for the entire length of the platform with tears streaming down their faces. She immediately wrote them a letter of apology, which she handed to a stranger to mail at the first train stop.
In England young Hedy visited agencies and contacted relatives, desperately trying to get her parents out of Germany. When she learned that they were in a French concentration camp and she could send them money, she sold her stamp collection—but didn’t reveal to them the source of the funds. The last letter she received from them, written by her mother in September 1941, encouraged her to “be good, and honest, and courageous—and to hold your head high and never give up hope.”
Four years later, in July 1945, Hedy returned to Germany to work with refugees and then as a researcher for the Nuremberg trials of Nazis for crimes against humanity. Not until 1956 did she receive a letter informing her that her parents, along with several aunts and uncles, had been murdered in Auschwitz. For six decades, until the end of her life on May 26, 2016, every Friday night that Hedy was home for the start of Shabbat, she lit two candles in honor of Hugo and Ella.
At her memorial service, on a table near the family mementos, was a form on American Red Cross stationery. It revealed that as late as 1996, Hedy was still trying to get information about exactly what had happened to her parents. That same year, this then-71-year-old woman who had been forced to do factory work in England at the age of 16 received an honorary high school diploma from St. Joseph’s Academy in St. Louis, the city that had been her home since 1969. Her green jacket emblazoned with the school seal sat proudly next to the Red Cross Tracking Inquiry.
I don’t know why Hedy Epstein didn’t spend her life in bitterness and despair wrapped in hatred. Instead, she committed herself to human rights and social justice, motivated by her determination that no one should ever have to suffer what she suffered. That included Palestinians—a conviction that earned her much criticism. In July 2011, she was part of the Gaza Freedom Flotilla, on board a boat attempting to break the Israeli blockade and carry humanitarian aid to the Gaza Strip. Three days after her 90th birthday, in August 2014, she was arrested closer to home, at a Black Lives Matter protest over the fatal shooting of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri.
Hedy understood how unimaginably horrific things can turn when hate speech becomes part of common conversation and political policy. “Don’t be a bystander” was her constant refrain. “Nobody can do everything,” she reflected (though I believe she tried). “But if each and every one of us does his or her share, then maybe someday we’ll have peace in this world. I’d like to live that long.”
Hedy didn’t live quite long enough to see that peace. My partner, Bill, who organized and protested alongside her for 32 years, was like a son to her. In her final days, she rallied through weakness and pain for his visit to St. Louis. In his last moments with her, Hedy stretched out on her couch. Bill sat on the floor next to her and began serenading her with “Brahams’ Lullaby.” She smiled and whispered, “Wait…I know it in German. My mother used to sing it to me.” And then she sang along in her still-remembered native tongue.