Book Reviews

The World that Was Ours

By Hilda Bernstein

Persephone Books Ltd £10

Review by Anne Sebba, Jewish Chronicle, April 17 2004

It’s hard to imagine a greater dilemma for a mother: to flee, certain that the police are only minutes away, or to stay and risk being arrested which would prevent your being with your children anyway.

Hilda Bernstein, one of the most courageous of the anti-apartheid campaigners in 1960′s South Africa, gets to the core of what it means to be a woman and to care passionately about a political cause in her deeply moving book, The World that was Ours, now reissued with a reflective preface and afterword by the author. She maintains that only a very few people are able to turn their backs on the responsibilities and emotional ties of family life. Her most important possessions were always her children “at that stage still too strongly tied to every cell of my physical and mental being and I could not find the will to set them on one side and live without them.” When she finally rushes out of the back door through the garden, as the Special Branch arrive at the front, the children are unaware that she has gone. In the kitchen never to be entered again, the washing machine goes into its rinsing cycle and the pressure cooker sends out its agitated puffs of steam- an indelible image.

In this riveting book, written in the immediate aftermath of her flight to London – the children were to follow eventually and the family lived in often painful exile in England for the next forty years – Hilda vividly re-creates the atmosphere in post-war South Africa and her own part in the struggle to bring about equality and justice in the country. The gripping centrepiece of the book is the trial itself and the harassment of witnesses by State Prosecutor, Percy Yutar, an observant Jew determined to show that not all Jews were radicals. One of the notable aspects of the trial was the Jewish backgrounds of the white defendants. Yet the book’s unusual power lies in the way Hilda describes at every stage how her life was constantly riven by the routine domestic life of home and children and the exhausting travel to Pretoria, 40 miles away, where she had constant fights with the appalling Colonel Klindt, in charge of the prison where her husband Rusty was being held. There is a particularly agonising moment when Hilda realises the failure of her attempt to protect her son from news of his father’s arrest; someone else has already told him .

Born in London in 1915 to poor Russian immigrants of Jewish origin called Schwartz, later Watts, Hilda has always been an atheist. She was inspired by her father’s fierce sense of social justice, which taught her never to define herself according to race or religion. When her father returned to the Soviet Union she moved with her mother in 1932 to South Africa. Bernstein adored the physical beauty of her adopted country, loved the home she and her architect husband had created for their four children and writes with searing honesty about her reluctance to leave.

This month (eds June) is the 40th anniversary of the Rivonia trial which sent Nelson Mandela and seven others to prison on Robben Island for 18 years. Rusty Bernstein, charged with sabotage for which he could have been hanged, was the only trialist acquitted. This is an important book partly because most accounts of major political events are written by the men who were driving them. Here is an intensely female view of the struggle written by one who was not merely witnessing them from the sidelines but played an active role herself. In 1943 she served on the Johannesburg City Council- the first Communist elected to public office by a whites-only vote, she went to prison in 1960, worked on an underground newspaper and in any other way to support her family while her husband was awaiting trial in prison.

Last year, now a widow recuperating from a hip replacement, she returned, semi- reluctantly, to Cape Town, home of her youngest son. She won’t discuss physical pain, although as she admitted when I met her there, the irony of a woman with her background living in this privileged, white enclave is painful. She is philosophical about the attitude of other residents in her “over-sixties” block, who appear neither to know who she is nor about the momentous changes of the last decade, seeing it as a tribute to the smooth way change has been effected. On the plus side she is able to meet her old friend, Nelson Mandela for lunch occasionally.

Anne Sebba is the author of The Exiled Collector: William Bankes and the Making of an English Country House published by John Murray.