Welcome to this my blog - a record of my life with books and pictures

Monday, October 4, 2010

The World That Was Hers: Hilda Bernstein, my teacher in South African history

When Nelson Mandela walked out of prison after 27 years of incarceration in 1990, I was 7 years old and on the other side of the world. I do remember it though. It was one of those events that was covered in every country and talked of in every place. People of my generation recall the campaign against Apartheid in South Africa, but only in its twilight days – when most of the argument had been won internationally. As a child, political ideas seemed to come to me through a glass darkly, and were formed slightly skew-whiff. Often I had an idea about how I felt about things, but there was a bit of a knowledge gap, particularly in relation to distant lands and afar away cultures.

So, the Persephone Classic, The World That Was Ours by Hilda Bernstein has been a powerful read both emotionally and intellectually – I finally know something about Apartheid South Africa. Hilda Bernstein was a communist and a passionate campaigner against racial segregation. She was born in Britain but her heart seems to have been in Africa. She was white but she rejected her privileged status. She and her husband, Lionel “Rusty” Bernstein were active political dissidents in Johannesburg at a point in its history when dissent was decidedly not allowed.

The World That Was Ours is her memoir of the early 1960s, a period when the Nationalist government in South Africa was at its most Orwellian and rapacious. The Bernstein home is watched day and night, invaded frequently but policemen with seemingly endless arbitrary powers. The Bernsteins are firmly and surely marginalised by legislation; it becomes illegal for them to speak to their closest friends and even at times, each other. Rusty is kept in solitary confinement and put on trial alongside other ANC men, including Nelson Mandela in the kangaroo court of the Rivonia Trial. Miraculously, when the other defendants are sent down for life, Rusty is acquitted and the final act of this memoir is played out. Husband and wife escape South Africa, where they are both hunted people, in a nail biting chase across a barren landscape. They walk across the wilderness until they can hardly move for exhaustion; they are nearly attacked by dogs; they have no idea whom to trust and whom to fear.

The memoir of Hilda Bernstein is far from impartial, but it is a living breathing and extremely chilling window onto her world. I would not call this a political memoir but a personal memoir with a powerful political dimension. Bernstein self defines as a communist and her main reason is that in South Africa the communist party were the only party who were not racist. Bernstein’s communism seems to have been a rather different fish from that considered by another recent read, The Book and the Brotherhood by Iris Murdoch. For Bernstein, being a communist was about being a humanitarian and her memoir testifies to how easily ideas can mutate across borders and continents. The woman who emerges from these pages is a true idealist. She never, until very near the end, does what is practical. Instead, she does what she thinks is right. Readers may find themselves with mixed feelings at times, because of course; her political life restricted her family life dreadfully. They could not take holidays, they could not go out with their children of an evening, school friends invited for supper would arrive with the police on their tails. Ultimately however, the power of the narrative voice both justifies and fully explains Bernstein. What emerges is a picture of a deeply admirable woman. I fear that I would have strapped on my sandals and run for my life a long time before she did.

The political is knitted together with the domestic and the public, and provides a personal close up on persecution. In this history, coping with challenges strengthens people but also makes them hard and puts them beyond the reach of readjustment. Bernstein deals with this implicitly throughout the book and with remarkable candour in her “afterword”. Her writing is good. She has the confidence of a woman who knows that she can write and is not afraid to break a few rules. The prose is lyrical and almost cinematic. The final sequence in particular, in which Hilda and Rusty fly to safety after a perilous journey is so vivid, that I could almost imagine myself there.

I have peppered this review with pictures of the Persephone edition of the book, the Persephone end paper, and a photograph of the author. Interested readers may also enjoy this excellent review at Books and Chocolate.


  1. Powerful read indeed - I read this last December, and wrote about it here:


    It's not an often mentioned Persephone despite the fact that it has made it into classic status...

  2. I'd managed to let this one skip under my radar: thank you for bringing it back up into the light, will track a copy down!

  3. This sounds a very powerful book which should be read slowly I think. I do hope I am able to get it at some time.

  4. I think this is my favourite Persephone, and it's as gripping as reading a thriller. (It's also the one that Nicola Beauman says she's proudest of having published.)

  5. Awful how we sometimes forget how long it is since we visited our blogger buddies so I thought I'd stop by and say a big hello.

  6. What a coincidence I have a passage Mandela used at my blog today to kick start Black History month. I've yet to read this book but thank you for reminding me aboutit.

  7. An interesting review. It is truly amazing the way in which others live, and yet we are all in the same world. 'A world of difference' as a phrase, comes to mind.

  8. I'm Hilda Bernstein's younger daughter - it's great to know her book is still being read, enjoyed and recommended - thank you.

  9. This book sounds amazing. I should subscribe to Persephone. I just hope I can afford it and that they ship to India!

  10. This sounds absolutely fascinating. Having just come back from Africa (although not RSA) and talked to so many South Africans whilst I was there about their country and its history and literature, I've come home desperate to read more - and feeling that I"ve rather neglected a whole genre! Am just reading the Golden Notebook at the moment too and finding the aspects of it concerned with communism particularly fascinating - Doris Lessing did a lot of her growing up in Africa and also became very involved with the communist party.

    Will look out for this on my next Persephone visit for sure!

  11. Dear All,

    Thank you all very much for visiting and leaving your thoughts in comment form....

    Verity - I am off to read your review now and wondering why I didn't pick it up before. Thanks for your comment.

    Tonia - well, I hope that you find and enjoy. As Verity says, it is not often mentioned but is a Perephone Classic.

    Mystica - it is powerful but it is also quite compulsive so I read it quite quickly.

    Mary - I didn't know that about Nicola Beauman but I am not that suprised.

    Petty Witter - thank you and "Hello!"

    Joan Hunter Dunn - I think that I sent you an email didn't I? I hope that you enjoy this one I do recommend it strongly.

    Aguja - yes that is the heart of the matter in a way and one of the wonderful things about books is the way that they open vistas to their readers.

    Frances, I am very touched that you have read my review and left a comment and I think that your mother's work will continue to be read and enjoyed for many generations to come.

    Vaishnavi - I don't know whether they ship to India - if they don't I expect that you can bu through Amazon. See if they will send you the biannual magazine - they might be willing to send that out internationally (I don't know, just guessing). Also - there is a wonderful "Persephone Forum" on the internet. Enjoy.

    Jane - interesting that you mention Doris Lessing as I have never read her work but was aware of the background. Must get around to that at some stage!

    Thank you all and enjoy your saturdays


  12. You need to choose your teachers more wisely.

    Let me refer you to another book, one of considerably greater honesty:


    You will learn that, far from having been a kangaroo court, the Rivonia Trial was conducted with the utmost adherence to procedure and fairness.

    You also need to understand that, at the time, both the UK as well as the US still implemented the death penalty, and that, had Nelson Mandela been found guilty on the same charges in any of those countries, there is no doubt that he would've been executed.

    You need to understand that Hilda Bernstein was a traitor to everything that made her life and her style of life possible, and that in any other society, in any other time, she would've been regarded to be as despicable as it possibly is for a person to be.

    You also need to know that, in the South Africa of today, we have an average of 25000 murders every year in a population consisting of 50 million people. That means that it is considerably more dangerous to be just a normal person in South Africa today than it was to be a combatant (or anybody else) in either of the recent Afghanistan and Iraqi wars.

    You need to appreciate that this situation came about, to a significant extent, due to the efforts of people such as Mrs Bernstein.

    In considering the slaughter of human beings since the handover to Black rule in South Africa, i.e. about half a million people having been murdered since then, it is, maybe, time to start assigning guilt, to start thinking of who should be charged with having committed "Crimes against Humanity". Of these, there is no doubt that Mrs Bernstein should be on the list.