Row over definition of Holocaust survivor

A row has broken out over the meaning of the term Holocaust survivor after an 85-year-old grandmother used it to describe herself when criticising Israeli action against Palestinians.

German-born Hedy Epstein was attacked by a senior figure in the Zionist Federation who dismissed her as a refugee “touted as a trophy survivor” to help vilify Israel.

The row exploded into a heated online exchange and a debate about whether historians had a proper definition of the term.

Jonathan Hoffman, a vice chair of the ZF, wrote in his blog on the JC website: “Hedy Epstein is a ‘refugee’. She is not a ‘survivor’. To call her a ‘survivor’ is an insult to genuine survivors and to their families. Hedy Epstein was never in a camp, a ghetto or a death march.”

He agreed that Ms Epstein came to England on the kindertransport from Germany on May 18 1939 and went on: “The Yad Vashem definition of a ‘survivor’ is someone who was in a camp or in Germany or an occupied country after the War broke out. Epstein does not conform to that definition.

“If she — and the people who are using her — are prepared to call her a ‘survivor’ to add weight to her mendaciousness about Israel, then it is perfectly reasonable to point out that she is not a ‘survivor’ but a ‘refugee’. By using her status as a tool to vilify Israel, she — and those who use her — have made that status a matter of public interest.”

The posting attracted more than 40 comments, ranging from one calling Mr Hoffman a “Holocaust revisionist” to others saying the only reason for drawing attention to her was because she was siding with the Palestinians and that it was “all about politics”.

Speaking from her home in Missouri, Ms Epstein said she adopted the term only after a Holocaust museum described her as a survivor. The United States Holocaust Museum in Washington DC had also applied the term to her. “It was not something I called myself to begin with. Sometimes it’s uncomfortable because it labels me and I am a lot of other things,” she said.

She grew up in the village of Kippenheim and was called “a dirty Jew” and thrown out of school after Hitler came to power in 1933 when she eight.

“My father was sent to Dachau before I was sent to England at 14. That was the last time I saw my parents and they and almost all my relatives were killed in camps in France and at Auschwitz.” After England, she went to a surviving uncle and aunt in America.

She said her stance on Israel was rooted in her parents’ anti-Zionism. But she took little notice until the massacres of Palestinian refugees by Lebanese Christian militiamen in the Sabra and Shatila refugee camps in 1982.

She has visited the West Bank five times and was in Egypt last week for a Gaza freedom march. She has been to Israel to visit a Holocaust memorial that bears her parents’ names.

She admitted: “My views have been coloured by what I have seen and lived through. I knew from early childhood what persecution and oppression was like. Some Holocaust survivors disagree with my views, others don’t.”

And she pointed to another paragraph from Yad Vashem which stated: “One can also define Shoah survivors as Jews who lived for any amount of time under Nazi domination, direct or indirect, and survived it . . . as well as Jews who forcefully left Germany in the 1930s, after the rise of the Nazis to power. No historical definition can be completely satisfactory.”

WHAT THE EXPERTS SAY

Experts agree on one thing: there is no single definition of who is a Holocaust survivor.

Everyone agrees that it includes those who were in the camps and were caught in Nazi-occupied Europe from 1933 to 1945 But there are some who adopt a wider definition.

The Claims Conference in New York, for example, cited many different classifications from the German government about who could make a claim under different programmes and was therefore a survivor.

Lord Janner, chair of the Holocaust Educational Trust, was unequivocal: “If Hedy Epstein was on the kindertransport, she is a Holocaust survivor. What she is doing might be abhorrent and sad but kindertransport are survivors.”

Historian and Holocaust expert Professor David Cesarani said: “There is no single definition of a Holocaust survivor. It is technically more correct to describe those who came to the UK in 1938-39 as former refugees from Nazi persecution. But if they feel like survivors I don’t see why they should not be allowed to think and speak of themselves as such. Both terms, ‘Holocaust’ and ‘survivor’, have become woefully imprecise.”

Denis MacShane MP, chair of the All-Party Parliamentary Inquiry into Antisemitism, said: “My interpretation would be someone who has been in one of the death camps or prison camps.”

Baroness Deech said: “My first reaction would be someone in the camps or in Europe. But this woman would never have been on the kindertransport and had to flee if not for the Nazis, so I would say she is entitled to call herself a survivor.”

Deborah Lipstadt, who defeated a libel action from Holocaust denier David Irving 10 years ago, agreed: “It’s someone whose life was seriously disrupted by the Holocaust or had to leave Germany precipitously. However, in her case it has been milked for all it’s worth.”

    Last updated: 4:35pm, January 14 2010