Never againKindertransport survivor/Mideast activist causes a stir in Berkeley

As it turns out, the flier was the most controversial thing about her appearance at U.C. Berkeley.

Hedy Epstein, an 80-year-old German native who escaped the Holocaust on the Kindertransport, had been expected to “detail how the situation on the ground in Palestine today very much resembles the situation in Nazi Germany,” according to a flier billing her talk Tuesday evening, Oct. 19, at U.C. Berkeley.

Because she has participated in actions with the International Solidarity Movement — a pro-Palestinian organization that coordinates acts of civil disobedience against the Israeli army — her reputation in the Jewish community precedes her.

Epstein, who has traveled to the Middle East twice in the past two years, did indeed offer some harsh indictments of the Israeli military’s behavior in the West Bank and Gaza Strip in her Berkeley talk. But the woman who lost her parents at Auschwitz made no such comparisons of life in the West Bank to what she experienced as a child in Nazi Germany.

The only time she came close was when she held up the red sticker that security agents put on her luggage at Ben-Gurion Airport when she was leaving the country. She was interrogated for five hours, she said, and had to submit to a full body search.

“The Nazis made the Jews wear a yellow star,” she told the crowd of about 100, most of them students. “I was labeled with a bright red sticker and told them that’s how I felt. They told me it was because I am a security threat.”

Epstein, of St. Louis, now speaks widely on her experiences in the West Bank, saying that most Americans have no idea how much the Palestinians are suffering.

She primarily discussed her experiences in demonstrations against Israel’s security barrier. At one, she saw the Israel Defense Forces shoot an Israeli Jewish protester in the leg. In another, she described how she and others were tear-gassed. She described checkpoints and roadblocks, and how Palestinians were often subjected to the whims of soldiers, as to whether they’d be allowed access to their land that day.

“When I stood next to the wall the first time in [the West Bank city of] Kalkilya, it came to me how ‘Never again’ is used as a motto by Holocaust survivors,” she said. “But that means only for Jews, and now it is happening by Jews.”

In the question period, some Jewish students tried to get Epstein to condemn how her talk was billed. She dodged those questions.

When asked, she said she supported Israel’s right to exist, and would even support its right to build a security barrier, if it did so on its own land.

Joseph Shaposhnik, though, felt like Epstein was being manipulated by the groups that sponsor her talks on college campuses. “I’m surprised that she’s so naive,” he said after. “She doesn’t understand that she’s being manipulated by these groups.”

Yaron Asoulin, an Israeli, said, “I’m sad that she didn’t get how Israelis suffer too, how an Israeli mother is afraid to send her child out every day.”

While Adam Weisberg, executive director of Berkeley Hillel, found it troubling that Epstein did not criticize how her talk was advertised, Becky Gimbel, president of the Jewish Student Union, was upbeat about the dialogue that took place as a result.

After the talk, Gimbel was approached by two students from the Muslim Student Association who apologized for the flier. The group co-sponsored Epstein along with the Arab Student Association, the left-leaning Jewish group Tzedek and the Center for Middle Eastern Studies.

They told Gimbel the flier was a copy of one done by students from the Coalition for Justice in the Middle East and the Muslim Student Awareness Network at Stanford, where Epstein was to speak on Wednesday, Oct. 20, and was not intended to offend. They asked for the best way to apologize to the Jewish community,

“I only hope this can further some kind of communication between us,” said Gimbel. After the two students left, she said, “I’m overjoyed by the conversation we just had.”

Alix Wall
Alix Wall

Alix Wall is a contributing editor to J. She is also the founder of the Illuminoshi: The Not-So-Secret Society of Bay Area Jewish Food Professionals and is writer/producer of a documentary-in-progress called "The Lonely Child."