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Government, Politics & Issues

Obituary: Hedy Epstein — She escaped the Holocaust and became civil rights, anti-war activist

Hedy Epstein in her St. Louis neighborhood
Humans of St. Louis | used with permission

Hedy Epstein was arrested 10 days after Michael Brown was killed by a police officer in Ferguson, in August 2014.

She didn’t like the way people who were demonstrating against the killing were being treated by police and the National Guard, so she joined a group of peaceful protesters. They marched to Gov. Jay Nixon’s office in the Wainwright Building in downtown St. Louis.

Arrest wasn’t initially in her plans, but Ms. Epstein figured if she could survive the Holocaust, she could survive a brief stint in jail, even if she was 90 years old.

“I was just going to be somebody in the crowd,” Ms. Epstein told Newsweek. “I guess maybe I was impulsive: Someone said, ‘Who is willing to be arrested if that happens?’ I said, ‘Yeah, I’m willing.’”

Ms. Epstein, who had been on the front lines of fighting for causes she believed in for most of her life, died Thursday, May 26, of advanced metastatic cancer at her home in the Skinker-DeBaliviere neighborhood. She was 91.

“I’ve been an activist since I was 16,” Ms. Epstein said last year as she walked briskly near her Waterman Boulevard condo, something she’d done almost daily for the past 30 years. She expressed no dismay at being arrested at 90 on failure to disperse charges (later dismissed), saying simply: “Why not me? They handcuffed all nine of us.”

After the massive protests died down, the Black Lives Matter movement continued. Ms. Epstein supported the effort by putting a Black Lives Matter sign in her window, despite knowing that someone had complained about another neighbor doing so.

“I did not take my sign down,” Ms. Epstein smiled defiantly, “and no one said anything about it.”

Escaping the Holocaust

Few people dared cross Ms. Epstein, a diminutive force to be reckoned with. Her fearlessness had been forged by the horrors of the Holocaust.

Hedwig Wachenheimer was born Aug. 15, 1924, in Freiburg, Germany. As Adolph Hitler rose to power, her parents began to see signs of trouble to come.

Hedy Epstein at 14
Credit Provided by friends
Hedy Epstein at 14

The Nazis confiscated the dry goods business her father operated with his brother. Ms. Epstein was kicked out of school with the words of her principal ringing in her ears: “Get out, you dirty Jew!” That day, she arrived home to a ransacked house. Her father was arrested and led away in his pajamas.

Unable to secure travel documents for themselves, Ms. Epstein’s parents, Hugo and Ella (Eichel) Wachenheimer, arranged for their 14-year-old only child to escape Germany on May 18, 1939. She traveled to England on a ship as part of Kindertransport, the British rescue operation that saved 10,000 children from the Nazis. Her parents died at Auschwitz in the summer of 1942.

Most of Ms. Epstein’s relatives did not survive the Holocaust. She remained in England until 1945, when she returned to Germany to work as a research analyst for U.S. prosecutors during the Nuremberg Doctors Trial.

A Matter of Justice

Ms. Epstein immigrated to the United States in 1948. She arrived in New York City and immediately began working at the New York Association for New Americans, an agency that brought Holocaust survivors to the U.S.

She and her husband, Arnie, whom she later divorced, moved to St. Louis in the early 1960s. She soon became a volunteer with the Freedom of Residence, Greater St. Louis, an organization that was instrumental in ending housing discrimination in the city. She became the organization’s executive director in the mid-1970s. During the 1980s, Ms. Epstein worked as a paralegal for Chackes and Hoare, a law firm that represented individuals in employment discrimination cases.


As an advocate for equality and human rights, Ms. Epstein spoke out against the war in Vietnam, the bombing of Cambodia, and restrictive U.S. immigration policies. She supported the Haitian boat people and women’s reproductive rights, and, after the 1982 massacre at Sabra and Shatila, Ms. Epstein began her work for peace and justice in Israel and the Palestinian occupied territories.

Throughout her life, Ms. Epstein continued to advocate for a more peaceful world. In 2002, she was a founding member of the St. Louis Instead of War Coalition. Much of her later activism centered on efforts to end the Israeli occupation of Palestinian territories. 

In 2014, she jumped eagerly into Black Lives Matter.

Ms. Epstein believed in a duty to speak out against injustice.
Credit Provided by friends
Ms. Epstein believed in a duty to speak out against injustice.

“It’s a matter of racism and injustice, and it’s not only in Ferguson… .” she told Newsweek during the volatile period following Brown’s death. “Racism is alive and well in the United States.”

“Her life was about service and it was about justice, about everybody having the right to be treated fairly and with dignity,” said her longtime friend and fellow activist, Dianne Lee. “Everything she did was motivated by that.”

Ms. Epstein founded the St. Louis chapter of Women in Black and co-founded the St. Louis Palestine Solidarity Committee and the St. Louis chapter of Jewish Voice for Peace. She traveled to the West Bank several times, first as a volunteer with the nonviolent International Solidarity Movement and repeatedly as a witness to advocate for Palestinian human rights. She attempted several times to go to Gaza as a passenger with the Freedom Flotilla, including as a passenger on the Audacity of Hope, and once with the Gaza Freedom March.

Her autobiography, Erinnern ist nicht genug: Autobiographie von Hedy Epstein ("Remembering Is Not Enough: The Autobiography of Hedy Epstein"), was published in 1999 by Unrast-Verlag, a German company and is available in German.

As a member of the St. Louis Holocaust Museum and Learning Center’s speakers’ bureau, she gave countless talks at schools and community events. She shared her Holocaust experiences with thousands of Missouri youth as a featured speaker at the Missouri Scholars Academy for more than 20 years. She was a sought-after national and international speaker.

Not Guilty

Ms. Epstein concluded every presentation with “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 that is happening, we become complicit.”

“I’m sure I’m guilty of a lot of things,” she said, “but I don’t want to be guilty of not having tried my best to make a difference.”

Myriad honors confirmed her relentless pursuit of justice. They included a Fair Housing Achievement Award from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development in 1975. In 1988, she received the Inspiration for Hope Award from the American Friends Service Committee and the Ethical Humanist of the Year Award from the Ethical Society of St. Louis.

In recent years, she was honored with the Imagine Life Education through Media Award and the American Friends Service Committee's "Inspiration for Hope Award.

Survivors include her son Howard (Terry) Epstein, of Columbus, Ohio, and granddaughters Courtney and Kelly.

A memorial service in Forest Park is being planned.

Donations in Ms. Epstein’s name may be made to Forest Park Forever, 5595 Grand Dr. in Forest Park, St. Louis, MO 63112; American Friends Service Committee, 1501 Cherry St., Philadelphia, PA 19102; American Civil Liberties Union, 125 Broad St., 18th Floor, New York, NY 10004; and/or American Civil Liberties Union of Missouri Foundation, 454 Whittier St., St. Louis, MO 63108.

Gloria S. Ross is the head of Okara Communications and AfterWords, an obituary-writing and design service.

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