Bernstein, Hilda 1915-2006

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Bernstein, Hilda 1915-2006


See index for CA sketch: Born April 15, 1915, in London, England; died of heart failure, September 8, 2006, in Cape Town, South Africa. Activist, artist, and author. Along with her husband, Lionel, Bernstein was a leader in the anti-apartheid movement in South Africa. She was the daughter of a Russian Bolshevik, who passed on his leftist political beliefs to his daughter. When Bernstein was eighteen, she moved to South Africa to work in publishing, journalism, and advertising. There she joined the South African Labour Party but then switched to the Communist Party in 1940, believing the communists were more involved in the fight against black oppression in the country. She married the next year, and both she and her new husband were active in the party. In 1943 she began a two-year term on the Johannesburg City Council, making her the only communist to hold political office in that city. After banning communism, the Afrikaaner government prohibited the Bernsteins from participating in political organizations and from publishing papers. Bernstein stubbornly resisted such tactics, founding the Federation of South African Women and leading a march in Pretoria in 1956. The Bernsteins faced repeated criminal charges. Hilda Bernstein was arrested briefly in 1961, and her husband was put on trial in 1964, along with African National Congress members such as Nelson Mandela. Though her husband was acquitted, South African police came again to the Bernstein home to arrest Hilda. She and her husband managed to flee, escaping to what is now Botswana and eventually making their way to England. While in exile, Bernstein began a new career as an artist and illustrator, and many of her pieces were featured on posters and book jackets that promoted the Anti-Apartheid Movement. She also was involved in the women's section of the African National Congress. The Bernsteins eventually returned to South Africa in 1994, when democracy had been restored and Nelson Mandela was elected president. Bernstein wrote about her experience fleeing South Africa in The World That Was Ours (1967; revised edition, 2004). She also authored the nonfiction works No. 46—Steve Biko (1978), For Their Triumphs and for Their Tears: Women in Apartheid South Africa (1985), and The Rift: The Exile Experience of South Africans (1994), as well as the thriller novel Death Is Part of the Process (1983). For her activism work, she was awarded the Luthuli Silver Award in 2004.



Bernstein, Hilda, The World That Was Ours, Persephone (London, England), 2004.


Los Angeles Times, September 13, 2006, p. B13.

New York Times, September 13, 2006, p. C13.

Times (London, England), September 30, 2006, p. 71.

Washington Post, September 13, 2006, p. B6.

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Bernstein, Hilda 1915-2006

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