Hedy Epstein, a Holocaust refugee whose sharp criticism of Israel — including comparing the state to the Nazis — drew controversy, has died at 91.
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Epstein died at her home in St. Louis Thursday, according to Jewish Voice for Peace, a group in which she was active. The group supports Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions against Israel.
In February, the Austrian Parliament invited Epstein to speak at an event honoring women Holocaust survivors, but then cancelled the event amid criticism from Jewish groups angered that Epstein was the sole Jewish speaker.
Born Aug. 15, 1924 in Germany, Epstein fled to England at age 14 on a Kindertransport — the name for efforts to rescue European children of the era to the relative safety of Britain. Her parents, grandparents and most of her extended family were killed by the Nazis.
Epstein immigrated to the United States in 1948, moving to St. Louis in the early 1960s, where she volunteered with a nonprofit dedicated to housing integration and fair-housing laws.
She also worked as a paralegal for a law firm representing individuals in employment discrimination cases.
In 1982, following the Sabra and Shatila massacre in a Palestinian refugee camp by Israel’s allies in Lebanon, became outspoken on behalf of Palestinian rights.
According to Jewish Voice for Peace, Epstein founded the St. Louis chapter of Women in Black, a group that opposes Israel’s occupation of the West Bank, and cofounded the St. Louis Palestine Solidarity Committee and the St. Louis chapter of Jewish Voice for Peace.
Epstein visited the West Bank several times, volunteering with the International Solidarity Movement and other pro-Palestinian groups. She participated in the Freedom Flotilla, an effort to break Israel’s naval blockade of the Gaza Strip. In a 2004 lecture at Stanford University, Epstein compared the Nazi treatment of Jews to the Israeli treatment of Palestinians.
In 2014, Epstein grabbed international headlines when she was arrested during a civil rights protest in in the aftermath of the police killing of unarmed African-American teen Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri. Soon after, some commentators criticized her for describing herself as a Holocaust survivor, saying it was misleading since she had not been in hiding or in a concentration camp and spent the bulk of World War II in the relative safety of England.
Epstein was a member of the St. Louis Holocaust Museum and Learning Center’s speakers’ bureau, speaking frequently at schools and community events. According to Jewish Voice for Peace, Epstein “ended every talk with three requests: remember the past, don’t hate and don’t be a bystander.”
Epstein is survived by her son and two granddaughters.