Epstein, who lives in St. Louis, Missouri, had recently been surrounded by protests following the shooting of unarmed black teenager Michael Brown by a policeman August 9. On Monday, she decided to do something about it. Yet, disregarding even her advanced age, Epstein was still not another random protestor in the crowd.
Born to a Jewish family in Freiburg, Germany in 1924, Epstein was eight years old when Adolf Hitler came to power in 1933. The daughter of a dry goods shop owner and a housewife, she fled in 1939 to England with the help of her parents in order to escape Nazi persecution, as part of the Kindertransport, a mission that helped rescue at least 10,000 Jewish children prior to the outbreak of World War II. Many times, these children were the only surviving members of their families.
As for Epstein, her parents were first sent to two different concentration camps in France. By late summer 1942, her parents, along with all other surviving members of her family, were sent to the infamous Auschwitz extermination camp in Germany. In September 1942, Epstein received a postcard from her mother that read, “Traveling to the east .. Sending you a final goodbye.” It was the last time she would hear from her. The only surviving members of Epstein’s family were an aunt and uncle, who had emigrated to the United States in 1938.
For the rest of World War II, Epstein remained in England, where she attended school and worked several jobs, including one in a factory that produced war munitions. Following the war, she returned to Germany, where she worked for the U.S. government as part of the U.S. Civil Censorship Division and as a research analyst at the Nuremberg Medical Trial. Back in Germany, she hoped to locate members of her family, an endeavor which ultimately proved unsuccessful.
In 1948, she came to the U.S., working a variety of government jobs, still in hopes of locating her family. She worked for a stint at the New York Association for New Americans, an organization which helped bring Holocaust survivors to America. Not long after, Epstein became active in social justice campaigns for human and civil rights. In 1970, she began speaking to audiences about her experience in the Holocaust and her work in Nuremburg.
In 1989, she traveled to Cambodia, Nicaragua, and Guatemala as a peace delegate. Since 2003, Epstein visited the Israeli Occupied West Bank numerous times, participating in non-violent demonstrations with Israelis and Palestinians to protest Israel’s occcupation of Palestinian land. She was detained at the Tel Aviv airport in 2004 and strip-searched. In 2006, she was tear-gassed during a peaceful demonstration in Ramallah, where bombs were also detonated, and Epstein lost some of her hearing. She has been active in supporting abortion rights, fair housing, and anti-war efforts.
Therefore, it comes as no surprise that Epstein felt an impulse to take action in her town regarding the incidents of late. “I really didn’t think about being arrested or doing anything like that,” Epstein said to a Newsweek reporter. “I was just going to be somebody in the crowd. I guess maybe I was impulsive: Someone said, ‘Who is willing to be arrested if that happens?’ I said, ‘Yeah, I’m willing.’”
Along with fellow protestors, Epstein marched toward the Wainwright Building, where the office of Governor Jay Nixon is located, to express disapproval of his decision to activate the National Guard and to request that he deescalate the situation. They were informed that the Governor was not in the building and instructed to disperse. When they refused to do so, the group was arrested by police, handcuffed, transported to a police substation, and given court dates.
As no stranger to injustice, Epstein said, “I’m deeply, deeply troubled by what’s going on in Ferguson. It’s a matter of racism and injustice, and it’s not only in Ferguson…. Racism is alive and well in the United States. The power structure looks at anyone who’s different as the other, as less worthy, and so you treat the other as someone who is less human and who needs to be controlled and who is not trusted.”
She recalled an anecdote about her experience after coming to America and working at the New York Association for New Americans in New York. An African American woman helped her get started and informed her that they had an hour for lunch each day. Epstein did not understand why they could not go to lunch together. She said that she thought, “Wait a minute. Lincoln freed the slaves. This is 1948. You can’t go to eat where I go? Isn’t someone doing something about this?”
Many years later, Epstein is troubled by police violence and riotous violence in the streets, both of which have been the subject of concern in Ferguson, Missouri. While being escorted to the police van, she said, “I didn’t think I would have to do it when I was 90. We need to stand up today so that people won’t have to do this when they’re 90.”
(Daily Corinthian columnist Stacy Jones teaches English at McNairy Central High School and UT Martin and serves on the board of directors at Corinth Theatre-Arts. She loves being a downtown Corinth resident.)