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Holocaust survivor and activist for justice Hedy Epstein dies at 91


The following obituary for Hedy Epstein was sent to us by Dianne Lee. Epstein was a friend and mentor to us at Mondoweiss, and she will be sorely missed. 

Holocaust survivor Hedy Epstein, 91, died at her home in St. Louis, Missouri, USA, on May 26, 2016. An internationally renowned, respected and admired advocate for human and civil rights, Hedy was encircled by friends who lovingly cared for her at home.

Born August 15, 1924, in the Baden-Württemberg region of Germany, her lifelong commitment to human rights was formed by the horrific experiences she and her family endured under the repressive Nazi regime.

Unable to secure travel documents for themselves, Hedy’s parents, Hugo and Ella (Eichel) Wachenheimer, arranged for 14-year-old Hedy to leave Germany on a Kindertransport. Hedy credited her parents with giving her life a second time when they sent her to England to live with kind-hearted strangers. Hedy’s parents, grandparents, and most of her aunts, uncles and cousins did not survive the Holocaust. Hedy remained in England until 1945 when she returned to Germany to work for the United States Civil Service. She joined the Nuremberg Doctors Trial prosecution in 1946 as a research analyst.

Hedy immigrated to the United States in 1948. She and her husband moved to St. Louis in the early 1960s, and shortly thereafter Hedy began working as a volunteer with the Freedom of Residence, Greater St. Louis Committee, a nonprofit organization dedicated to housing integration and advocacy for fair housing laws. Hedy worked for many years as a volunteer and board member, and ultimately served as the organization’s executive director during the mid-1970s.

During the 1980s, Hedy 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, Hedy spoke out against the war in Vietnam, the bombing of Cambodia, and overly restrictive U.S. immigration policies. She spoke and acted in support of the Haitian boat people and women’s reproductive rights, and, following the 1982 massacre at Sabra and Shatila, Hedy began her courageous and visionary work for peace and justice in Israel and Palestine.

During her later years, Hedy continued to advocate for a more peaceful world, and in 2002 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 Palestine. She 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. Hedy addressed numerous groups and organizations throughout Europe and returned to Germany and her native village of Kippenheim many times.

Three days after her 90th birthday, Hedy was arrested for “failure to disperse.” She was attempting to enter Missouri Governor Jay Nixon’s St. Louis office to ask for deescalation of police and National Guard tactics which had turned violent in response to protests following the killing of unarmed teenager Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri.

Hedy was a member of the St. Louis Holocaust Museum and Learning Center’s speakers’ bureau and 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 twenty years. She ended every talk with three requests: remember the past, don’t hate, and don’t be a bystander. Through the years, Hedy received numerous awards and honors for her compassionate service and relentless pursuit of justice.

Hedy is survived by son Howard (Terry) Epstein, and granddaughters Courtney and Kelly. She was beloved and will be truly missed by countless friends in St. Louis and around the world.

Hedy often shared her philosophy of service with these words: “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, we become complicit. I don’t want to be guilty of not trying my best to make a difference.”

Hedy always did her best, and the difference she made is evident in the commitment and passion of those called to continue her work. Her friends and admirers honor and salute her deep and lifelong dedication to tikkun olam, the just re-ordering of the world and promise to remember, to stay human, and to never be bystanders.

A memorial service will be held in Forest Park at a date and time to be determined. Donations in Hedy’s name may be made to Forest Park Forever to establish a permanent tribute, 5595 Grand Drive 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.

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36 Responses

  1. CitizenC on May 26, 2016, 2:58 pm

    I met her twice. When I lived in Ann Arbor MI a group organized a vigil outside a Conservative synagogue. She came to join the vigil, spoke at a separate event, and tried to contact the rabbi, who hid from her.

    I also met her at one of the anti-AIPAC demos in DC. At the Busboys and Poets event after the demo she spoke, and in response to my question frankly described herself as a lifelong anti-Zionist.

    She opposed the JVP/End the Occ jihad against Alison Weir, which resulted in threats and violence at an appearance by Alison at Walnut Creek CA earlier this year.

    Hedy told me that her children had prevented her from seeing her grandchildren over her views, outrageous.

    She was courageous and exemplary.

    • oldgeezer on May 26, 2016, 9:24 pm

      She was indeed courageous. I have read of her activities a number of times over the years. I would hope that is not true about her children as such an act would be despicable.

      Thanks for all you did and r.i.p.

    • Kathleen on May 28, 2016, 9:44 am

      So sad that her children “prevented her from seeing her grandchildren over her views” That is so cruel and demonstrates once again how controlling, fearful and cruel people can be when it comes to taking a stand on this critical issue.

      She was a formidable activist.

  2. eljay on May 26, 2016, 3:06 pm

    Peace to Ms. Epstein, and sincerest condolences to those who knew and loved her.

  3. sawah on May 26, 2016, 3:39 pm

    RIP beloved friend.

  4. annie on May 26, 2016, 3:42 pm

    she was a courageous woman with a lot of personal spunk and charisma who was continually working to make the world a better place — right up to the end.

    she will be missed and remembered.

    and she will be smeared by those who seek to limit holocaust remembrance and sympathy for only zionist speakers — which is disgusting.

    in my last conversation with hedy i mentioned to her that her legacy would way outlast her — she said she didn’t know about that.

    one of her deepest regrets was being separated from her grandchildren, which is very sad, because she was a special woman. it’s too bad they grew up without her. perhaps someday they will grow to appreciate her.

    • bintbiba on May 26, 2016, 6:03 pm

      Her angelic smile must have covered up such a huge load of pain .

      An inspirational woman , her grandchildren are the greatest losers for not having had her to show them the way …

      Rest in Peace , dear Hedy

  5. Brewer on May 26, 2016, 3:59 pm

    Utmost respect for this great human. A life well lived.

  6. Kate on May 26, 2016, 4:07 pm

    Why was she separated from her grandchildren, Annie?

    The people that made me angry were the ones who insisted she wasn’t a REAL Holocaust survivor, since she took the Kindertransport to England and so didn’t die in Germany like the rest of her family…

    • dianab on May 26, 2016, 5:49 pm

      Kate, to answer your question: As Citizen C wrote in his/her response above, “Hedy told me that her children had prevented her from seeing her grandchildren over her views”.

      So precisely because Hedy fervently believed that “Never Again” means “Never Again for Anyone”, her children disowned her and deprived their children of contact with their remarkable, compassionate, principled grandmother. Great shame on them. Perhaps her grandchildren will some day understand what an amazing person and role model their grandmother was. For their sakes I hope they do.

      • Lillian Rosengarten on May 26, 2016, 10:48 pm

        Sadly, I never met Hedy but felt we were truly connected through our backgrounds and our determination to to stand up for Palestinian Justice and to speak out against Israeli crimes against humanity.
        How tragic that her family disowned this wonderful woman. Brings me to tears for I know what it is like to be close to one’s beloved grandchildren. Dearest Hedy, you are our sister in our struggle and this will never change.

      • MHughes976 on May 27, 2016, 6:59 am

        But it would seem that she was not disowned by the St. Louis Holocaust Museum and was permitted to speak on its behalf.

  7. Greta on May 26, 2016, 7:56 pm

    In honor of Hedy Epstein and her tireless work for Palestine, a group of us friends are working with PLAYGROUND FOR PALESTINE (a 501c3 organization) to dedicate a playground in her name. The preliminary information is below as well as how to donate.

    It is with great sadness to learn that Hedy Epstein, a dear friend of Palestine, is gravely ill. All of us at Playgrounds for Palestine extend love and warmth to Hedy and her family.

    PfP was approached by Hedy’s closest friends who would like to dedicate a playground in celebration of Hedy’s life. Details of this project will be announced in forthcoming days.

    The donate button is just under the last sentence in the above paragraph.

  8. tokyobk on May 26, 2016, 8:32 pm

    aleha ha shalom

  9. Citizen on May 26, 2016, 9:39 pm

    R.I.P., Hedy, Maybe your offspring will wise up before they die

  10. Marnie on May 27, 2016, 1:59 am

    What I find incredible about so many holocaust survivors is their enormous capacity for empathy and desire for justice for all victims regardless of their ethnicity, creed, background, politics, etc. What a beautiful smile!

    Contrast this with the folks who weren’t even born yet, much less on european soil so never experienced the carnage and the terror, but milk it for everything they possibly can and have no problem perpetrating the same on ‘the other’. All this to the horror of real live holocaust survivors. Shame on them and bless those loving souls who really were a light among the nations.

  11. CitizenC on May 27, 2016, 5:14 am

    It’s nice to memorialize Hedy in the various ways noted, but the best memorial might be to commission a good translation of her memoir, Erinnerung ist nicht genug (remembering is not enough) still available at Her web site does not mention an English translation.

  12. silamcuz on May 27, 2016, 5:46 am

    I also would like to add that, we should abstain from wishing her to “rest in peace”, as to me, it indicates that her life was miserable and full of hurt, anger and pain. I believe she was at peace with herself, and the universe throughout her life, and did not yearn for her spirit to find refuge away from her exemplary life.

    • annie on May 28, 2016, 3:28 pm

      RIP does not indicate someones life was “miserable and full of hurt, anger and pain”. it just means rest in peace.

      • silamcuz on May 29, 2016, 3:45 am

        I get that, but why the need to wish her something that should be expected for people like her? I believe it is more appropriate for those who died without having found their calling in this world, those who were perpetually restless and cursed with a life full of hurt and pain. It would make sense then to hope for them to find rest and respite that they were unable to find when alive.

        I’m not trying to be disrespectful of Hedy here but the total opposite. If we acknowledge Hedy’s virtuous life, and her strong stand for justice over everything else, then to wish her to find peace in death seems invalidating of our celebration of her.

      • Mooser on May 29, 2016, 11:12 am

        Keep it up, “silamcuz”. If there’s one thing we know about you, it’s that you respect people

  13. genesto on May 27, 2016, 12:32 pm

    What a special human being she was! We were honored to have her visit us at our home when she came to the Bay Area a few months ago. Besides all of the accolades given in the memorial above, we especially loved that she stood up to the bullying that she received for supporting Alison Weir as she was, and is, being attacked by so-called Palestinian justice activists. She was able to see through the fear and ignorance behind these attacks and fully appreciate the honesty, integrity and courage that Alison brings to the movement in trying to expose the destructive power of the Israel lobby in our country.

    I hope, as part of her legacy, we can understand and embrace her vision together in moving forward.

  14. genesto on May 27, 2016, 1:15 pm

    By the way, I haven’t seen anything here, or anywhere else, from JVP or USCEIO honoring Hedy’s memory.


    • annie on May 28, 2016, 3:28 pm

      here’s the bds movement honoring her:

      The Palestinian BDS National Committee (BNC), the broad coalition of Palestinian civil society that leads the global Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) Movement for freedom, justice and equality of the Palestinian people, is deeply saddened to learn of the passing of life long social justice advocate and freedom fighter Hedy Epstein on May 26, 2016. We wish to send our deep condolences to her family and friends.

      Throughout her 91 years Hedy not only spoke out on behalf of the poor and oppressed but consistently took action and risked her own life to build a better world. As a 14 year-old she was made a refugee, fleeing the brutal Nazi regime in Germany, the country of her birth. Her parents, grandparents and much of her extended family, unable to escape, perished in the Holocaust. Hedy did not surrender to despair by this horrific experience at such a young age but instead chose to dedicate her life to working for justice for all people.

      Eventually settling in St. Louis, Missouri in the U.S., Hedy continued to work for justice throughout her life. Whether educating young people about the horrors of the Holocaust and why we must never allow fascism and the forces of hatred to come to power anywhere in the world, working for housing integration in St. Louis, speaking out against the U.S. invasion of Vietnam and bombing campaign in Cambodia, standing up for Palestinian human rights or most recently protesting the police murder of unarmed black teen Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri (for which she was arrested at the age of 90) Hedy never stopped working for a more just world.

      Hedy visited Palestine several times. She took nonviolent direct action to resist occupation in the West Bank with the International Solidarity Movement. She attempted to break the brutal Israeli siege of the Gaza Strip by sea as part of the Freedom Flotilla as well as by land with the Gaza Freedom March. Hedy founded the St. Louis chapter of the Palestine solidarity organization Women in Black and later the St. Louis Palestine Solidarity Committee where she was active in Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) campaigns. For these actions and many more too numerous to list here, the Palestinian people, and indeed all freedom loving people around the world owe Hedy a debt of gratitude.

      All of us here at the BNC draw deep inspiration from Hedy’s lifelong dedication to struggle on behalf of the oppressed. Her dedication, her resilience and her tirelessness are things we all aspire to. Hedy’s entire life truly embodied Gandhi’s famous quote “Be the change you wish to see in the world”. She will be remembered. She will be missed.


    • gamal on May 28, 2016, 7:10 pm

      “Throughout her 91 years Hedy not only spoke out on behalf of the poor and oppressed but consistently took action and risked her own life to build a better world. As a 14 year-old she was made a refugee”

      Respect to a Heroine.

  15. JoeSmack on May 27, 2016, 1:19 pm


    I will always have the greatest respect for you. From hunger striking for the people of Gaza to defending Michael Brown and the people of Ferguson, to standing up for justice even if it meant alienating family members, you will always be a role model of self-sacrifice in my eyes.

    The vile campaign of invective that was directed at you by those who disagreed with your support for Alison Weir was particularly disgusting, and I praise your resilience in standing up for yourself even when your “allies” turn their backs on you.

    • genesto on May 27, 2016, 5:56 pm

      Thanks, Joe. I was criticized for using this forum for bringing this up. I, and apparently you too, think it IS appropriate. Alison is still being attacked and impeded from carrying her message. So I felt that this might be a good time to finally put these attacks behind us and move on. I know that’s what Hedy would have wanted.

    • Kathleen on May 28, 2016, 10:23 am

      Allsion sent this out to her list serve. Allison had her own direct experiences with Hedy. Moving

      ” Dear Friend,

      I’m deeply saddened to tell you that our dear friend Hedy Epstein passed away yesterday. She was 91.

      Hedy, a holocaust survivor, was a courageous fighter for justice for all. Below is a full obituary of Hedy by her fellow St. Louis resident and devoted friend, Dianne Lee, who had been like a daughter to Hedy.

      I thought I’d also share a few personal memories.

      I first met Hedy about a dozen years ago when I gave a talk in St. Louis. Hedy, who had already been working for Palestinian rights for many years, came up to me after my talk and was wonderfully encouraging and supportive.

      A few years later I was making a short video exposing Israel’s practice of strip-searching Palestinian women and children. Hedy, who had also endured a particularly cruel example of this treatment, agreed to tell her story on camera.

      I travelled to Hedy’s home, where she recounted her painful and powerful story. At the end of her narrative, Hedy described her deep outrage and feeling that she would never again return to Israel.

      However, Israeli officials had taken on the wrong person when they thought that their perverse treatment of Hedy would diminish her activism. She returned to Palestine many times to take part in the nonviolence resistance movement.

      The next time I saw Hedy was in France in 2007, where I was visiting longtime Palestine activist Greta Berlin. (Greta was in the process of founding what turned into the flotilla movement.) Greta said that Hedy was going to be visiting soon, as was Mary Hughes-Thompson, another longtime activist for Palestine and flotilla founder.
      Me, Greta Berlin, Hedy Epstein, and Mary Hughes Thompson in France at Greta’s house Greta suddenly came up with the idea that since random circumstances had caused us to converge, we should take the opportunity to travel to Palestine together. Greta, who did a great deal of traveling for her job, said she would use her airline miles to get us all tickets.

      Before going to Palestine, however, we all visited a Nazi camp where Hedy’s mother had been imprisoned after Hedy’s parents had sent 14-year-old Hedy on a kindertransport to safety in England. Hedy, who had never seen her parents again, had determined to visit each of the camps in which they had been held. I believe this was the only one she hadn’t yet visited. This was an intensely sad experience, but it also seemed to give Hedy some sense of closure. I was glad that Greta had made this possible.

      We then began our trip to Palestine. We were a somewhat unusual team: I was 61, Hedy was 83, and Greta and Mary were in between. Like virtually all trips to the Occupied Territories, we saw tragedy and beauty, violence and courage, joy and grief. We cried and laughed together.

      (I sent some of my photos from this trip to Mary and Greta last month to upload on a special Facebook page honoring Hedy.)

      I remember one time Hedy was almost arrested by Israeli soldiers. They wouldn’t let her through the checkpoint out of Hebron with Palestinians and the rest of us, because Hedy was Jewish. The soldiers insisted that Hedy take the Israeli settlers’ route, which Hedy adamantly refused to do. The soldiers finally gave up, and Hedy, who was about 5 feet tall, triumphantly passed through the Palestinian route.
      The last time I saw Hedy was a few months ago.

      After the JVP-USCEIO attacks on me, Hedy signed the Open Letter supporting me and calling for an end to such destructive and divisive attacks. I was truly honored that Hedy chose to do this, and saddened that she then came under attack herself when she refused to give in to pressure by USCEIO leaders to remove her name. In fact, rather than bend to their demands, Hedy arranged an official library talk for me at the St. Louis Main Library, and the room was full.

      When the attacks on Hedy continued, California activist Jane Jewell, outraged at the way Hedy was being treated, invited Hedy for an extended visit, and held a delightful party for Hedy where a variety of San Francisco Bay Area activists came to honor Hedy. Some of us also took turns driving Hedy to various events and activities, and I was the fortunate one to take Hedy to a demonstration in downtown San Francisco that Hedy wished to join. At 91.

      I’m just one of numerous people around the world who have such memories of Hedy. Hedy stood up for the underdog, opposed abuse of power, and worked valiantly and consistently for a kinder, more just world. And in so doing she inspired multitudes. She was brave, funny, intelligent, and committed. For her, “never again” meant Never Again.

      When justice for Palestinians eventually comes, history will show that Hedy helped bring it about.

      I miss her.
      —Alison Weir

      • ritzl on May 28, 2016, 11:29 pm

        Thanks Kathleen.

  16. Kathleen on May 28, 2016, 10:13 am

    I had my own experience with Hedy at one of the anti aipac gatherings in D.C. about 8 or 9 years ago.

    We were in a group of Code Pinkers and others outside of the D.C. convention center marching around the building with our signs, banners etc. I saw this tiny older lady and became worried that someone might accidentally knock her over. I introduced myself and then realized who she was. I asked her if she minded if I spotted her in the crowd. Did not hover too close but stayed close ready to break a fall if need be. Had just been spending hours, days weeks in the senior community my dad was in so witnessed the 80 something crowd falling way too often.

    Later after the rally set up a chair for her under a tree in the park across from the Convention Center where Aipac was holding their yearly event. Brought her some snacks and water and then we talked. She was so sweet, kind and yet so powerful in her convictions. We talked about her life, her parents, what had formed her convictions. I let her know that I so admired those who had come out of such unimaginable tragedy (the Holocaust) with such a commitment to others who were suffering from oppression, racism, theft of property and loss of lives etc.

    I was so moved by her depth of conscience I asked if she would mind if I went looking for some of the young people I had encountered and talked with who were attending the Aipac conference. She agreed. I went hunting and found these students who had been recruited to attend the conference by an all expenses paid trip. Many were involved with their universities student councils etc. Brought them over to Hedy and very long conversations ensued with great and informative dialogue about the occupation, what she had seen with her own eyes and heard with her own ears on her numerous trips into illegal settlements etc. The students who asked questions listened attentively and were moved. Went on for several hours.

    It was a complete honor to be around such a woman with such depth of soul, love, compassion. Hedy was a tiny lady who was incredibly brave and had a spirit so large and inclusive that it was mesmerizing especially given her personal history. I am grateful to have spent those hours with her and am so thankful for her monumental example of humanitarian values that have no bounds.

    May Hedy rest in peace, she certainly deserves it. May her family find peace.

  17. pianoteacher on May 28, 2016, 12:53 pm

    Having been asked to correct some of the misinformation on Hedy, I am fairly reluctant to say much at this point, and need to think carefully what goes public and what remains private.
    I would like to point out a few things:
    Hedy’s family situation was nothing whatsoever to do with her anti Zionist views.
    Other than saying that, she would like her private life to remain just that – private. There is unfinished business that my husband and I will be working on over the next month that Hedy asked me to do after she had died.
    Enough said.

    So far as her public life is concerned, and her anti Zionist work, yes, that is public!
    The attacks against Hedy because of her support for Alison Weir were incredibly vicious. She came to stay with me for two and a half weeks to “get away from it all”. However, the attacks continued… I was outraged that anyone could be so spiteful to a 91 year old woman who has lived through so much pain already. Couldn’t they leave her to spend the end of her life in peace?
    Hedy took the attack on Alison very personally. When she was at school and the Nazis took over, the head teacher said to her, “get out, you filthy Jew”.
    Hedy knew first hand how painful it is to be excluded from a group – in her case, her school – and when Alison was excluded from the US Campaign, these feelings all came flooding back.
    No one, she told me, should ever be excluded. That is why Hedy defended Alison so strongly, that is why Hedy signed that Open Letter defending Alison, and that is why no one, absolutely no one, was going to persuade her to take her name off.
    Hedy’s friendship with Alison goes back a long way.

    So far as ” Hedy’s Final Battle” is concerned, it would be poetic to describe her cancer as her “final battle”. However, it wasn’t. This was the first battle she decided NOT to fight! When she was told her cancer was terminal (during March 31-Aoril 2 hospital stay) she decided not to receive treatment for it, which would have been invasive, but to go the hospice route. She was very matter of a fact about it all, saying she was ready to die, “the sooner the better”. Fortunately the whole thing was within two months. My fear was that it may drag on for ages, but it didn’t, thank God.
    So if you really want to wax lyrical about ” Hedy’s final battle” I am afraid it was incredibly mundane: her bathroom sprung a leak and flooded the floor, so she was busy with plumbers and insurance etc etc and very stressed out by it all. Then shortly after that she got her diagnosis.
    So while it would be good to write how she died fighting Zionism to the end, her last bone of contention was actually the insurance company!

    • annie on May 28, 2016, 2:39 pm

      Hedy’s family situation was nothing whatsoever to do with her anti Zionist views.

      thanks for clearing that up. this is what she told me also, but i didn’t feel qualified to respond earlier because others knew her much better than me.

    • CitizenC on May 28, 2016, 5:53 pm

      Hedy told me about her grandchildren 12 or 14 years ago. There may have been other factors, and/or things may have changed over time. Pianoteacher’s info is obviously much more recent. But her family situation is not important.

      What is important is her principled dissent. Joining a vigil outside a synagogue about Israel was anathema to liberal Jewish opinion, which did not faze her in the least. She came up from St Louis, spoke at an event, tried to contact the rabbi, who hid from her, and published a letter in the Ann Arbor News.

      Likewise her stand against the JVP/End the Occupation attack on Alison Weir. Many people who disagreed with it did not speak against it because they are afraid of JVP/ETO. Not Hedy. As her participation at the synagogue vigil showed, she agreed with Alison’s critique, about the influence of American organized Jewry, which was the real basis of JVP/ETO’s attack on AW.

    • Kathleen on May 28, 2016, 10:44 pm

      Thanks for sharing. Sounds like you know what you are talking about. Also sounds like you had a very special and sincere friendship with Hedy. I am so sorry to hear that she was harassed for standing up for Allison.

      What a soulful trooper Hedy was. Again thanks for the up close and personal view.

  18. ritzl on May 28, 2016, 7:14 pm

    A truly remarkable woman. I wish I could have given her some of the time I have left.

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