Picture of Hilda Bernstein clipping

In jail, I couldn't bear to think of my children; Interview; Hilda Bernstein

by Anne Sebba, The Times, 01 July 2004

Hilda Bernstein was forced to abandon her family to fight Apartheid in South Africa. Today, aged 89, she has no regrets, she tells Anne Sebba.

"I THINK I am brave. Yes, I do. I'm prepared to accept that now," says Hilda Bernstein, the veteran anti-apartheid campaigner, reflecting on the time her husband faced the death penalty three years after her own prison detention. "I'm not boasting that I'm extraordinary in any way. I think you can't ever plan how you will react. But I know now that I am able to confront very difficult situations."

Hilda serenely imparts this self-knowledge while sipping coffee in her Cape Town flat, which overlooks the Atlantic and its snarling 30ft (9m) rollers. Six months ago she returned to South Africa after 40 years of exile in Britain. She is 89, widowed and recovering from a hip operation, so has plenty of time to reflect on the past and ask herself if the struggle was worth it.

She is living in a privileged white enclave, but from her window she can just make out Robben Island, where her friend Nelson Mandela served 18 years of a life sentence after the notorious Rivonia trial, which concluded on June 11, 1964. A photograph of Mandela is on her table.

Hilda's husband, Lionel "Rusty" Bernstein, an architect, was charged with sabotage. He could have been hanged, but in the end he was the only Rivonia defendant to be acquitted.

But Hilda Bernstein was not concerned just for her own and her husband's survival: she had four children to think about. When she and Rusty were arrested for the first time in 1946, charged with sedition during a miners' strike, their eldest daughter, Toni, was only two. From then on, the family lived under the shadow of the authorities.

During the 1950s Hilda's activities were increasingly restricted until she was prohibited from publishing her writing. Then, in 1960,came the Sharpeville shootings, and a state of emergency was declared. At 3am, Hilda and Rusty were seized from their home and taken to prison. Toni, by then 16, was left in charge of Patrick, 12, Frances, nine and Keith, four.

"This was the worst time for me. Not because the prison conditions were so bad - disgusting food, chipped plates and mattresses without sheets -but I really suffered from being without my children for three months. I couldn't bear even to think of them," says Hilda.
"My children were desperately important to me. I had wanted them, they were not accidents, and I felt responsible for them although it seemed that politics had taken over. What saved my life then was poetry."

Hilda then recites a verse by the 19th-century poet Lizette Reese which concludes: "I wonder at the idleness of tears." She refused to allow herself to cry. Instead she memorised poetry: "It was a type of mental release, a comfort I can't quite describe today."

Another comfort was keeping a prison diary. Slowly, she gets up to find it for me now, a book full of pages of minute, pencilled writing, which includes a dramatic account of an eight-day hunger strike. She concealed the diary by cutting a hole in the underarm of her overcoat lining and making sure she always wore the coat. Only Toni came to visit her when she was in prison; the younger children were not allowed to see her. After her release Rusty, afraid of a repetition of the 1960 emergency when both of them were arrested, urged Hilda to be more cautious. She periodically threw out banned literature, but she knew from the regular raids on their house that another arrest was likely. As long as she remained in South Africa she was too deeply involved in politics to stop her activities. Although she dreaded the thought of the children being alone, prison was a risk she knew she must face. When pressed by others to "consider the children", Hilda replied: "I do. In the long run the most important thing as far as the children are concerned is what sort of country they will have to live in."

Three years after Hilda's time in detention, Rusty was arrested at Lilliesleaf Farm, Rivonia, on July 11, 1963. He had driven there, with some foreboding, for a secret meeting. He was already under 12-hour house arrest and restricted to Johannesburg. The police, acting on a tip-off, were waiting.

Hilda's account of the year leading up to the Rivonia trial and the family's eventual exile -The World That Was Ours -has just been reissued. Some of the most moving passages concern her fights with authority to visit Rusty in jail in Pretoria, 40 miles (65km) away.

She invented family matters that had to be discussed, such as whether Toni should learn French or Latin. When she was finally allowed to visit Rusty she felt her heart "twist with the longing to touch".

Hilda makes light of the courage it took to see her through this time. Once Rusty was in prison, the family had no money. Later, when Rusty was held in solitary confinement under the notorious 90-day law, she devised a method of inserting letters inside the collars of shirts she was given to launder, as well as a needle and thread for him to do the same. When his precious pencil stub was running out, she inserted a thin ink tube inside the length of a banana. "It was so important to me to communicate with him. Of course, I knew what the consequences might be and how he might suffer if caught."
She had also to protect her children. Toni often accompanied her. "I felt proud having a parent in prison," recalls Toni. "I used it at school to embarrass people. I'd get up and say 'I must go now: I'm visiting my father in jail'."

Toni insists that she was not damaged by the demands made on her. But Hilda admits: "I think she had to shoulder too much responsibility for a young person.
We didn't understand about child psychology. We tried to protect the younger ones by not telling them, but I understand now that they picked up things we weren't aware of."
When the judge pronounced Rusty not guilty, Toni remembers the confusion in court. The furore drowned out the judge's announcement. Just as her mother rushed forward to try to touch his arm, her father was immediately rearrested and taken back to the cells.

Two days later Rusty was released on bail. Yet both he and Hilda knew it was only a matter of days before the secret police would come for them both. Friends persuaded them that exile was preferable to jail. Even so, Hilda, convinced that she would never again see the country she loved so passionately, did not flee until the last moment. "I felt I was saying goodbye to all that the house represented; a wonderful and fruitful part of our lives."
It was only when secret police arrived at her front door that she left, escaping through the back of the house, leaving the washing machine whirring on its rinse cycle and the soup steaming away in the pressure cooker. She went into hiding. It would have been too dangerous to try to escape to Botswana with her children, but she managed to meet them under cover in a public park. It was almost unbearable.

Keith laughed at his mother's disguise -a big hat, high heels and heavy make up. Then he asked: "How long before you send for us?" It was an unanswerable question.
When the brief meeting was over, Toni walked away with her arm around Keith. That image gave Hilda nightmares for years.
Frances, who was 11 at the time, finds that memory almost as difficult. "It's a scene I can recall very vividly even today and it's still very emotional. These were enormously traumatic events for children. I think we were all wounded, but not in a life-destroying way. We were all proud as well."
Patrick, who now lives with his wife and child in France, is the Bernstein child most affected by the years of fear and danger. He had once, aged 15, been to visit his father in jail. He was close to tears the whole time. When his parents fled to England, he was at boarding school in Swaziland and was not able to say goodbye.
Keith and Frances joined their parents there as soon as they could, but Patrick remained at school and came to live in England much later. "Now I know I should have made him come to us sooner," says Hilda.

Toni, by then married and studying at university, joined the family with her husband.
In exile in London, Hilda was struck by depression. "I had a breakdown of sorts and suffered a real loss of identity. I got out of it because we had dependent children who needed us to put our lives together. " And it was in England that Hilda took up art seriously, acquiring an international reputation for her etchings.
Despite the cost to herself and her family, she has no regrets. "I never had indomitable certainty about things. But I acted the way I did and took those choices for good reasons so there is no point in dwelling on it. Once you start on a path and come to an obstacle you don't turn back, you somehow get round it."
Born in London in 1915 to poor Russian immigrants of Jewish origin, Hilda inherited from her father a fierce sense of social justice. "He taught my sisters and I never to define ourselves according to race or religion but as members of the human race. I am an atheist."
Her father returned to the Soviet Union in 1925 "to offer his services" to it. She never saw him again.

Hilda left school aged 16 with ambitions to be an artist, but she could not afford to study, so she moved with her mother to South Africa in 1932. Shocked by the policies of Mussolini and Hitler, she joined the Labour League of Youth and then the Communist Party. In 1941 she married Rusty, a fellow communist. In 1943, while he was away at war, Hilda was elected to the Johannesburg City Council –the first Communist Party member elected to public office in South Africa by a whites only vote.
The job gave Hilda access to the appalling poverty in black communities, and she made lifelong friends among them. "Whites encountered poverty every day through their maids. Most chose not to see further," says Hilda.
She finds it a painful irony to be living in an all-white "over-sixties" apartment block where many residents appear not to know who she is. This bothers her, but she accepts it as a tribute to the smooth way change has been effected.
These are heady days in South Africa as the nation celebrates ten years of democracy. The day after we meet is Freedom Day, and I ask Hilda how she will celebrate.
"By being alive," she replies.
Was it worth all the sacrifices? "That's for others to say. But maybe this little group of whites did make a difference, however small. I feel proud we were among those who helped to influence the inevitable change, which has come much sooner and more calmly than I ever felt possible."

The World That Was Ours by Hilda Bernstein is available from
Persephone Books (020-7242 9292), priced £10