Remembering is not enough

June 8, 2010

For Holocaust survivor and Palestine solidarity activist Hedy Epstein, Remembering Is Not Enough is both the title of her autobiography and her life's credo.

Hedy, now 85, last saw her parents and extended family on May 18, 1939, at the age of 14, when she was sent from her native Germany on a kindertransport to Britain. Her entire family was denied emigration and was killed in the Auschwitz concentration camps.

Epstein has been working from Cyprus with the Free Gaza Movement, and many of her colleagues were among the activists on the Gaza Freedom Flotilla that was attempting to bring humanitarian aid to the 1.5 million people under siege in Gaza when it was assaulted in international waters by the Israeli military. Sherry Wolf spoke to Hedy from Cyprus on June 3.

HOW DID losing your family in the Holocaust inform your solidarity activism with the Palestinians?

MY PARENTS were anti-Zionists. I didn't understand what that was when I was a child, but as I grew up, I came to see for myself.

In May 1948, the same time Israel was being established as a state, I arrived in the U.S. I had some really mixed feelings about Israel at that time because it meant there was a place for survivors to go, but I remembered my parents' anti-Zionism, and I was worried what it would all mean down the road. I was new in the U.S., and there were new things to learn and experience.

Palestine and Israel remained in the back of my mind until 1982 when I learned of the massacres in Sabra and Shatila [Lebanese Phalangists, with the assistance of Israel's military, massacred 3,500 Palestinians in these two refugee camps in the south of Lebanon].

I asked myself: What was that about? What happened between 1948 and 1982? And as I learned more, I became increasingly more upset with Israel's military and their policies. As I understood more, I began to speak out against these policies.

Hedy Epstein in 2009
Hedy Epstein in 2009

WHY ARE you working to bring aid to Gaza?

IN 2003, I was in the Israeli Occupied West Bank for the first time. I've been back five times to the West Bank. And each time, the Palestinians ask me to tell the American people what I've seen and experienced. I made that commitment to them, and so I travel and speak out about it.

I have never been able to go to Gaza; each time I'm stopped. I suffer from Gaza fever, I really need to go. I want to tell the people there that I am standing with them in their sorrows and difficulties--that there will be a day when their children and grandchildren will be free.

WHAT IS your opinion of the Israeli state?

THE ACTIONS of the Israeli government and Israeli military, as they pertain to the Palestinians, are illegal and in violation of international laws. And, of course, the attack on the flotilla ships was illegal, in violation of maritime laws and international laws. Words almost fail me.

Have they no shame? What are they teaching their young people? What happens to them when they leave that military and return to their private lives, when they know that they will be rewarded for doing every evil deed? They are creating an immoral society.

ISRAEL JUSTIFIES its actions in terms of its own survival, how do you respond to these claims?

THE FREEDOM Flotilla was no threat to them. It only became a threat because they made it so. Everything they say is untrue. The soldiers came down on ropes from helicopters, shooting everyone around. The average age of people on the boat was maybe 60 years old. How could they be fighters?

There was an 18-month-old baby on the ship. Does anyone believe that people would bring a baby along if they expected violence? They didn't expect violence.

The cargo was inspected, and the people were inspected before they left shore. They had no weapons whatsoever. If someone holds a gun to your head, you have to protect yourself. It is a human right to defend yourself.

WHAT DO you think Americans who are horrified by Israel's actions ought to do?

THEY OUGHT to put pressure on their legislators. They ought to protest. Obama knows better. I don't know why he's taking such a namby-pamby attitude toward it. What is he afraid of? Is somebody blackmailing him? It's outrageous that he continues to allow Israel to act this way.

Americans must stop being silent. By doing nothing, you are complicit in all these evils. You must speak out, you must act.

As for Israel, I think the first thing the Israelis need to do is say we're sorry--to apologize. Once they can do that, they must sit down and talk, but first, they must admit their wrongdoing.

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