Saturday, September 18, 2010

The World That Was Ours by Hilda Bernstein

I've been trying to work my way though the list of Persephone publications.  There are so many great books to choose from, but it's especially challenging because so few of them are readily available here in the U.S.  Of course you can get them from The Book Depository (they ship free worldwide!)  but honestly, if I had to buy all the Persephones I wanted, it would cost me about $1000.  Tempting, but I could also use that much money for a trip to England -- after my plane fare, I'd have just enough for a plate of fish and chips and a pint.

I've been trying to use Interlibrary Loan whenever possible, and I was able to get my hands on a copy of The World That Was Ours by Hilda Bernstein, a British woman who emigrated to South Africa.   (Actually, it wasn't the Persephone edition pictured, but that was the nicest image I could find online).  This book is not like any of the other Persephones I read or bought so far.  It's a very serious non-fiction account of how Bernstein's husband Rusty was arrested in 1963 in Rivonia, South Africa, along with 19 other anti-apartheid activists, including Nelson Mandela.  The book describes Rusty Bernstein's house arrest before he was arrested at Rivonia, jailed without charge for 90 days under horrific conditions, and then the subsequent trial.  Eventually, Bernstein was acquitted, though every other defendant got life in prison, including Mandela, who served 27 years in prison.

This book started out great, very tension filled, almost like a thriller.  The Bernsteins are under strict rules due to the house arrest -- Rusty can be out of the house from 6:30 a.m. to 6:30 p.m. but must report daily to the police station between 12 and 2.  Every day his wife and family are terribly tense if he's not home by 6, because they fear he's been arrested and will never return.  Even when he's home, they're constantly watched, spied upon, their house is bugged.  The police can raid the house at any time, day or night.  Hilda, a journalist, is banned from publishing in South Africa, so she can only publish articles abroad, and Rusty's architecture business is struggling since he must work from home and clients and suppliers can't come to the house, since he isn't allowed visitors.   It's like being in a self-supported prison.  It's especially hard on their four children, ages eight to 19.  But the Bernsteins are so committed to ending apartheid that they quietly continue their political work.

Of course, the worst happens.  Rusty is at a political meeting in Rivonia, which is of course illegal, and the meeting is raided and everyone there is arrested.  By South African law, political prisoners can be held for 90 days without charge.  Rusty, like the rest of the prisoners, is in solitary confinement, with no books or papers and not much food.  He's let out of his tiny cell for only an hour a day.  The black prisoners have it even worse.   Visits with his wife are hard to get and very short.  The police are horrible and uncooperative.

After months of this treatment, the Rivonia trial begins miles away in Pretoria, and it is a complete joke.  Everything I know about law is from watching television, and even I can see from the description that it is a complete travesty of justice.  I know our American legal system is far from perfect, but what happened during the Rivonia trail was such a mockery of justice I had to keep putting the book down.  This book is well written, but I was so outraged by what was happening I kept wanting to throw the book across the room.  It's only about 300 pages but it took much longer to finish than I expected just because so angry at what I was reading.  A lot of political activists in South Africa were forced to flee the country, and I honestly can't blame them after reading what the Bernsteins were going through.  I don't know if I could have had the strength to stay and fight as long as they did.  It's really uplifting and encouraging to know that there were white people who fought against apartheid, but this was a tough read.  I highly recommend it if you're interested in Africa and true stories, but my next read is going to have be a lot lighter.


  1. This one sounds so tough. I'm glad you made it through - you were worried you wouldn't before it was due, right?

  2. Umm, it was actually due on Thursday! And I can't renew it because it's an ILL! (Hangs head in shame). Bad librarian!

    It wouldn't have been so hard if it wasn't all true. It is just shocking -- and Bernstein was a white prisoner. It must have been so much worse for the African prisoners, unimaginable. It makes my skin crawl.

  3. Hi Karen
    I was the then 8 year old in my mums book! - thanks for such long and good review; the Persephone edition is very nice. Mum died 5 years ago, but in her late 80's she wrote her last book, about an amazing journey her sister Olga took; the book is called either Separation or A Life of One's Own depending on where it was published.
    All the best
    Keith Bernstein

  4. Thanks for the interesting review. Can i put a word in for Ruth First's book 117 days, an account of her arrest and confinement for political activities in South Africa. A real eye opener for someone who knew so little about the situation at the time, I read it many years ago as a student.
    much love martine

  5. Thanks for the review. Sounds like a really tough read. It's hard to believe that it's a true story about someone's life. Sometimes we really have to count our blessings.

  6. Mr. Bernstein -- I'm so thrilled that you like my review. I'll have to look for more of your mother's books. Thanks!

    Martine -- I'll have to read that book as well, though I might have to take a little break. It is so horrific to realize the horrors that people have gone through.

    Beth -- I agree, absolutely. I am so grateful not to be living in a country with such a horrible and racist system. Makes me shudder.

  7. Thanks for sharing your thoughts on this. It does sound fascinating....and I've added it to my African Autumn list after all!

  8. Rebecca, good luck with your African Autumn! There are so many good books about Africa. I'd love to visit, probably Botswana since I loved No. 1 Ladies' Detective Agency.

  9. Do you know the names of Keith's two siblings? Were the Bernstein's living in Rivonia at the time?