‘Don’t Be a Bystander’: A Tribute to Hedy Epstein

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.

Hedy at 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. Continue reading