Tuesday, January 30, 2024

The World That Was Ours by Hilda Bernstein

Source of book: Borrowed from my wife. 


This is one of a number of fascinating books re-released by Persephone Books, a UK publishing house that has been working to re-publish books written (mostly) by women in the 20th Century that had unfortunately gone out of print. The list of Persephone books I have read and blogged about can be found at the bottom of this post. 


While most of Persephone’s catalog is fiction, there are also non-fiction books. This is one of them. 


First, a bit of background on Hilda Bernstein. Here in the United States, we have remained kind of ignorant and unaware of certain parts of world history. Namely, the parts that we were not major players in. This is a general failing, a national chauvinism that centers ourselves in the world, as somehow the pinnacle of human development. 


While there has been an attempt during my lifetime to expand “World History” to include more - my 7th grader is learning more than I ever did about other cultures and religions, and not just with a “see, Protestant Christians are better than everyone else, particularly those pagans” spin.  


One of the big gaps is the history of pretty much anywhere in Africa. I wonder how many Americans have any idea who Cecil Rhodes was, or why he is seen by Africans as a Hitler-like figure? Although I consider myself better educated than most, I confess that Africa is one place I cannot label the countries correctly, let alone recall the pre-colonial history or even the colonial history. 


There are only a few countries that really have been part of the new stories that most Americans noticed. Egypt, because of the Bible. Libya because of Kadaffi. Maybe Sudan’s civil war. The famine in Ethiopia when I was a kid. Then, blah, blah, blah corruption, blah diamonds, blah, civil war, blah, blah, black people whatever. All those central and southern African places were all alike, right? 


Except for South Africa, which entered my consciousness when Apartheid ended and Nelson Mandela was finally released from prison. 


But that was temporary, and these days, if it weren’t for Trevor Noah and Elon Musk, few Americans would even think about South Africa. And, come to think about it, many probably think Noah is British, and think Musk is just some rich dude with a funky name. 


I haven’t done that much reading about South Africa or Apartheid, so this book filled in some of the gaps. 


I will mention that I read July’s People by Nadine Gordimer for Banned Books Week a few years ago, and also Trevor Noah’s wonderful memoir, Born A Crime, both of which are worthwhile reads.  


So, who was Hilda Bernstein?


Born in England, her parents were from Russia, and ended up having to return when she was age 10. She ended up dropping out of school to work, but eventually ended up in South Africa working as a journalist. She met her husband, Lionel (“Rusty”) through her political activism, during World War Two. 


Rusty was also Jewish, but born in South Africa. Both of them became committed anti-Fascists. For a while, they were part of the Labour party, but eventually joined the Communist party, as it was the only South African political party that was not segregated. At one point, she was elected to the city council of Johannesburg.


She wrote, organized, and marched, one of the key figures in the opposition to Apartheid. Rusty too was a significant figure, and would play a significant part in the events described in this book. 


As Mandela and other anti-racist activists gained support, the reactionary elements in South Africa started freaking out, and, after gaining power, began a fascist crackdown on dissent, outlawing organizations, imprisoning or placing under house arrest anyone who had been a part of protests, strikes, or other anti-racist activities. Media was shut down, people were forbidden to see or talk to their friends and family, and other totalitarian measures were taken in an attempt to suppress the fight for justice. 


Hilda and Rusty were convicted of illegal political activity and spent a few months in jail, followed by years of house arrest. Finally, Rusty was arrested and charged with treason, along with Mandela and a host of others, black and white. Rusty was acquitted (due to an utter lack of evidence or even coherent charges) but others were not as lucky. After the trial, he was immediately re-arrested. Out on bail, he and Hilda decided to flee before they were both incarcerated indefinitely. 


The book tells her side of the story of the rise of fascism, their arrests and imprisonments, their experience of house arrest and the deliberate isolation from basic human contact they endured, the arrest and trial of Rusty and others, and their flight on foot over the border to what is now Botswana, then to England. 


The power of the book is in the fact that Hilda writes, not an objective story of events on the world stage, but a very personal and emotional account of the inhumane treatment that they endured at the hands of an evil regime. Both were strongly moral and decent people, which meant they were seen as the enemy by those whose power depended on the oppression of others. 


This is not an easy book to read. Bernstein is a good storyteller, not melodramatic, but devastating in the simplicity and calm recounting of her feelings, the trauma to their small children, and the basic inhumanity that was inflicted on them. 


Her account of the horrible choices they faced is also horrifying. How do you balance all of it? Your duty to your children, your desire to not abandon those who are left behind in the hell of fascism, your moral values, your desire to do something positive but without a way of knowing what choice would be best. It was a decision that tortured her, and one she still felt some guilt over later, even though it was very likely the best option. 


I also found the book difficult because there are so many parallels with our own political moment. There is a strong fascist movement here in the United States, and most of the people from my former religious tradition and my extended family are enthusiastically a part of it. And many more are like many of the white people in this book - not hateful themselves, but willing to turn a blind eye to the oppression of others. 


On the positive side, though, there is a lot that is inspiring about the South African struggle for equality for all. As a white man, I feel a kinship with those in this book like the Bernsteins, who were unwilling to be silent, to just go with the flow, take the easy road. As Octavia Butler pointed out, one way you can tell who the groups of good people are is that they tend to be diverse, with power shared with minorities and women. That was very much the case in South Africa. Groups that excluded the voices of Africans (in this context, meaning “black,” as contrasted with “colored” which included the significant Indian population as well as mixed-race persons) were bound to be either oppressors or collaborators with the fascist regime. 


By the way, I use fascism intentionally here, for two reasons. First, by any reasonable definition, South Africa’s apartheid regime was fascist. (And they didn’t hide it either.) Likewise, MAGA is a fascist movement by any reasonable definition. It’s textbook fascism. Second, Hilda Bernstein herself uses the term - accurately - to describe the fascist government and its fascist actions. 


Bernstein’s writing is also perceptive about politics - she was no dilettante, but an experienced politician and journalist. Her (illegally taken) notes about the trials included some surprisingly accurate transcripts of the words of Mandela and other African National Congress figures. (The book updates them with the video that was taken of Mandela and eventually released to the public, but Bernstein’s informal transcript was pretty darn good.) 


It is also notable for her consistent and clear belief - and practice - of treating black and white as full equals. Considering she was born in 1915, it becomes even more clear that my parents’ and grandparents’ generations have ZERO excuse for their ongoing racism. They are not “of their time” - they are just bigots. 


After the events of the book, Hilda Bernstein continued to work against Apartheid, both with writing and speaking against it, and in organizing the global opposition to Apartheid that eventually placed the international financial boycott that led to its end. It is no exaggeration to say that Hilda and Rusty Bernstein were instrumental in ending that evil, and should rightly be considered heroes of the 20th Century. 


I wanted to feature a lot of quotes from the book, because her words are so powerful, and because they have not been heard nearly enough. I am glad the book has been re-issued, and I hope it is read by more than a few people. 


There are a number of passages that explain how Hilda ended up in the Communist party. This is not to say she was a Stalinist, by the way. She was horrified at the invasion of Czechoslovakia, to the point where she quit the party and considered divorcing Rusty over their disagreement. But in the context of the times, and the political reality in South Africa - where the Communists were literally the only anti-Apartheid party - it is easy to understand her decisions. 


I began to see the future as basically between two alternatives - the threat of fascism or the possibility of communism. So I joined the Communist party. I had all the deep-rooted idealism of the young. To me, communism represented not just a bulwark against fascism, but something bigger. I thought of it as opening up the possibility of a world without poverty, without exploitation, without racialism, as a shining and ideal form of society.


If there are only two options, I myself (no fan of communism) would pick it over fascism. In our present time and place, there are other options - most notably social democracy. And the democracy part is important, in all of its manifestations: a free and active press, freedom of speech and assembly, collective action through unions and strikes, equal votes for all, economic justice. 


Bernstein discusses the history of segregation, particularly the economic exploitation of blacks which led to the need to justify it. Segregation, at its core, is intended to prevent white people from experiencing black people on an equal basis. That is, naturally, dangerous, because it can lead to seeing humans as equal regardless of color. She also notes that the Communist party, because it was unsegregated, became just that. 


As communists our political understanding allowed us to see each other as people, people to whom you could warm personally, thus opening up for us social friendships. We called each other ‘comrade’ and we were comrades for we formed social friendships that took us to the homes of our African comrades and brought them into ours. 


The loss of those social bonds because they were outlawed was one of the losses that she mourned the most. Particularly since being a communist (and thus an anti-racist) alienated her from the pro-segregation white society. She describes an experience that really feels familiar to me in our own fascist era. 


We became even more separated from white Johannesburg, except for personal friends, the majority of whom shared our attitudes and in many cases our politics. The years made me increasingly intolerant of those well-meaning whites who believed in gradualism and wanted to improve conditions among what they termed ‘the less-privileged section.’ I came to believe more and more in the essential oneness of humanity, in the need to express this through one’s life. All our activities, what creative powers and abilities we possessed were directed towards this involvement with human beings as humans, not because they were black and oppressed, but because they were human. 


It wasn’t that she wasn’t willing to be around people with different political views, but profound moral differences separated her from others.


Whenever I tried, something would happen to strip the screen of normality and reveal our difference. Holiday friends at the camping site would say something intolerably insulting about non-whites; to remain silent was to be a party to their attitudes. We spoke, and were immediately set apart from all others.


This literally happened with my father. Eventually, I stopped being willing to listen to the bigotry, and spoke out, first privately, then publicly. To remain silent would have been to be a party to that bigotry. The predictable result is estrangement from my parents. 


It is fascinating the way that Bernstein connects the dots on the progression. As the Nationalists (fascists) gained power, and increasingly cracked down on dissent, the response by those victimized by this brutality changed as well. When legal forms of protest become outlawed, then increasingly illegal responses - including violence - become inevitable. 


There is a reason that the United States has recurring bouts of racial unrest and violence. And it isn’t that black people are somehow inferior, yet refuse to “accept their place.” This is also a lesson that Israel is refusing to learn. You cannot simply ratchet up the brutality until some magical point where the oppressed give up and agree to be oppressed forever. After one of the early crackdowns, Mandela began to broadcast on Freedom Radio - an outlawed underground transmitter. 


It was a small beginning of the new policy of struggle that no longer sought to work within the framework of what the Government declared legal. 


Oh, and there are some badass Mandela quotes in the book. 


“What sort of justice is this, that enables the aggrieved to sit in judgement over those against whom they have laid a charge? What is this rigid color-bar in the administration of justice? Why is it that in this courtroom I am facing a white magistrate, confronted by a white prosecutor, and escorted into the dock by a white orderly? Why is it that no African in the history of this country has ever had the honour of being tried by his own kith and kin? I had discrimination most intensely and in all its manifestations. I have fought it all during my life; I fight it now, and will do so until the end of my days. I detest most violently the set-up that surrounds me here. It makes me feel I am a black man in a white man’s court.”

“No man in his right senses would voluntarily choose such a life in preference to the one of normal family, social life which exists in every civilised community…Rest assured that when my sentence has been completed, I will still be moved, as men are always moved, by their consciences; I will still be moved by my dislike of the race discrimination against my people when I come out from serving my sentence, to take up again, as best I can, the struggle for the removal of those injustices until they are finally abolished once and for all..I have done my duty to my people and to South Africa. I have no doubt that posterity will pronounced that I was innocent and that the criminals that should have been brought before this court are the members of the Verwoerd Government.” 


Oh yes, posterity has made that pronouncement. Just like it will about the evil of Trump and MAGA and the evil people who worship him. 


Bernstein herself muses on the reality. 


Violence is an integral part of the South African scene. Minor violence is perpetrated every day against Africans; in the police raids for passes, in making arrests and in the prisons. From time to time there is major violence, of which the shootings at Sharpeville in 1960 were the peak. Almost invariably the violence comes from one side - from the State through the police and its army. Violence as an instrument of government has been openly displayed; armoured cars and tanks in the townships, service revolvers carried at all times by every policeman, instructions given to the police by a Minister of Justice to shoot without hesitation whenever they think it necessary. ‘I abhor violence,’ the liberals say. Who does not? But what is their answer?


Another interesting parallel in this book is another example of how fascism is the same at all times and places. The “Censorship Bill” shut down independent newspapers and magazines - only those supporting the government were allowed. (Trump has literally said he will do this, by the way.) 


The Bill was not simply a measure for political censorship. Culture had become an enemy, as it was once for Germany, and the enemy had to be suppressed and destroyed. The poet is dangerous - his words break through barriers of race and language; the artist is dangerous - his brush and pencil reflect what exists around him and create commentaries on his life and times.


Later, Bernstein notices the hostility of the Government to books in general. As she puts it, “Prison officials are united in their deep mistrust and dislike of all books.” 


The Nazis were on everyone’s minds in the decades after the war, and, as above, Bernstein references them often. Here is another interesting passage:


In my heart I think the Nationalists do not have the terrifying conviction of their own rightness or the grim thoroughness of the Germans, they do not really believe in themselves and their cause, and this means hesitations and weaknesses even at the same time as it drives them to greater extremes. To uphold a lost cause, lost in the eyes of the whole world, must inevitably lead to doubts and conflicts. 


Before the trial, Rusty is arrested under a new “90 day” law - anyone can be incarcerated for 90 days without charges. In reality, they were also isolated and subjected to varying degrees of torture. And they could be immediately re-arrested for another 90 days. Hilda describes the mundane yet grindingly awful reality of this for their family. 


I can mend fuses and do other odd necessary jobs around the house, but I don’t like having to take decisions without ever discussing them first, disciplining the children, deciding on questions concerning schooling, pocket money, how late they can stay out at night. I don’t like having to take the car to be repaired. Something goes wrong with the record-player and I don’t know where to take it to be fixed; Rusty used to fix it himself. Everything that was shared is now mine, and most of it seems to be responsibility and decisions. 


Being deprived of a marriage like she was sounds horrible; I can feel the pain through the page. 


Occasionally, Bernstein feels the need to vent in a snarky manner, and I cannot blame her. This one is spot on. 


[O]n the other side of the road is the heavy stone lump which is the shrine of Afrikanerdom, said to be a replica of a Chicago synagogue, where the master race gather each year to give praise to God for their bloody triumph at arms over the black savages - the Voortrekker Memorial.


There are a number of names I was not familiar with before reading this book. In general, there are some heroic lawyers (that’s always nice to see), particularly Joel Joffe, who ended up staying behind (when he probably should have fled) in order to defend those charged. 


Jimmy Kantor faced charges, not because of anything he did, but because he employed his brother-in-law (connected to the ANC) in his law practice. 


Abram Fischer, who broke with his Afrikaner nationalist family to become a foe of Apartheid, and was renowned for refusing to claim special privilege based on his social status. Bernstein says of him and his wife Molly that they had the widest circle of friends of anyone she knew, including people of every race and economic status. 


Harold Hanson, who in his final argument reminded the judge that his own Afrikaner people, in rebelling against the British, did all the things the defendants were accused of - indeed, the very government owed its existence to these “illegal” acts. I love his argument that history will not only judge the acts of rebellion, but the response will echo for generations as well - so those imposing judgment are in the dock in the long run. 


I also learned a bit more about the specific cultural factors which contributed significantly to Apartheid. My knowledge of the Boer War is a bit limited, but I was well aware that the British were brutal in their treatment of the Boers - Dutch settlors. One could argue that the first concentration camps were set up by the British in this war, and tens of thousands of Boer civilians died in them of disease and malnutrition. 


In the end, Britain “won” the war, but at a cost that made it hardly worth it. It was the beginning of the end for the British Empire, even if that wouldn’t become apparent for a few more decades. 


The war left a bitter taste in the mouths of the Boers, who eventually came to dominate South African politics after the country was granted a degree of independence. 


Much like the American South won most of the cultural battle after the Civil War, the Boers won the cultural battle in South Africa, with Afrikaans becoming the most common first language for whites (Zulu and Xhosa are the most common, as 80% of South Africans are black.) 


Along with the cultural dominance came the religious dominance of Dutch Calvinism. And man, the more I see of Calvinism, the more I have come to believe that it is the single most evil manifestation of “Christianity” the world has ever known. And it has plenty of competition. Bernstein mentions it often in the book. 


The civil service is a preserve of Afrikaans-speaking whites. It is one of the strongholds captured from the English by Afrikaner nationalists and recognized now as theirs. They are Calvinist in religion, deeply reactionary in all their attitudes. Diversity is heresy. 


Here in the United States, Calvinism drove the enslavement society of the South - predominantly Scottish Presbyterians settled there, and Calvinism remains a core belief of the Southern Baptist Convention. To this day, the deep connection between Calvinist beliefs and reactionary attitudes is clear, as is the Calvinist aversion to diversity in any form. Bernstein mentions this again in her description of the trial as the confrontation of greater social forces. 


The Rivona Trial was a confrontation in which the opposing forces in South Africa appeared face to face; those who stood for apartheid, who defended and protected the apartheid State; and those who opposed it. The court was an ultimate court of morality; the issues were not the guilt or innocence of the accused, but the guilt or innocence of those who opposed apartheid. 


As then, so now, with Trump and MAGA attacking the guilt or innocence of all of us who oppose racial injustice. Bernstein goes on:


On one side was the State with its deep Calvinist roots asserting the unchanging nature of man and race, of man created immediately and in his present form, rejecting evolution, adhering to belief in the rigid and unalterable patterns of human behavior; fixed laws, the virtues of obedience, attainment as related to heredity not environment. On the other side: the vision of man as endowed with creative and developing gifts, the ability to learn and change; free-developing, self-fulfilling man, black and non-black.


Wow, that really is the crux, isn’t it? What Calvinism teaches is that injustices exist because people are created unequal. This is why Calvinism is mostly popular among privileged people. It is convenient to be able to say to those you oppress that their oppression is God’s will, and is because God created them inferior to you. 


This is, of course, nothing whatsoever like anything Jesus Christ taught, but Calvinism is a form of anti-Christianity, as its fruit amply demonstrates. 


Ironically, the belief that some people are better than others due to heredity needs to be protected by violence. Otherwise, those “inferior” people - women, people of color, immigrants - have this disturbing tendency to rise. It is the cognitive dissonance of all oppression: “some people are naturally inferior, and we have to constantly make sure they stay that way, using violence if necessary.” 


Another thing I did not know was that the United Nations voted (106-1….no points for guessing who dissented…) to condemn the Rivonia trial and call for the immediate release of the prisoners. While it did not have an immediate effect, it did set the stage for the eventual boycott, divestment, and sanctions leveled at South Africa. Again, Israel needs to start paying attention. It is losing international goodwill with its horrifying targeting of civilians in Palestine. (That includes here in the US, particularly among younger people. My eldest has participated in protests on this issue, and many of his friends did likewise. Goodwill doesn’t come back easily once lost…) 


I also have to mention something that warmed my lawyer heart. The initial indictment was so obviously defective that it was quashed. (The second should have been also, as Bernstein points out.) In any event, the prosecutor kept saying “squash” rather than “quash.” That’s rookie-level bad lawyering. Even Bernstein, a non-lawyer, notices. 


Later, after Rusty’s bail is denied, Hilda tells the prosecutor that she hopes his conscience will not trouble you too much in the future. He kind of freaks out, and insists his conscience is clear, and that he is a “deeply religious man.”


Yeah, what I said about Calvinism being an evil religion. I have no use for that kind of religion and never will. I don’t believe in hell, but I sure hope he had to answer to God for his disgusting evil behavior. 


Bernstein also has a scathing indictment of the prosecution for their treatment of Jimmy Kantor. Eventually, the judge dismissed all charges - there was literally zero evidence! 


It was March, seven months after Kantor’s arrest. The other accused were delighted at his release. The Security Police came forward to congratulate him, and called, “Goodbye, Jimmy.”

Goodbye, Jimmy - no hard feelings. We stuck you in solitary and gave you a nervous breakdown, we put you up on a capital charge, we ruined your business, lost your home for you; we played cat-and-mouse games over your bail; we didn’t have any evidence against you, but no hard feelings, goodbye, Jimmy.


Bernstein also recounts a conversation she had while on vacation during the several week trial recess. A man she is talking to mentions a British businessman’s impression of the country, and their conversation is fascinating. 


‘He’s amazed at what’s happening here - the great achievements in industry and commerce. He says it’s fantastic what the white man has done in South Africa and he’s going to tell everyone about it when he gets back.’ He looks at me and adds: ‘But I suppose you wouldn’t agree with that?’


Her response is so good, I intend to steal it (in modified form) in future conversations. 


‘On the contrary,’ I reply, ‘I do agree, the whites have made a tremendous contribution to the development of the country. But there are two things you cannot ignore: first, for all their technical know-how, the money and the skills they brought, they could not have achieved anything without African labour; all the wealth of the gold minds, the Cape fruit farms, the growth of industry on the Rand - it’s all been done with African labour, and it has produced so much wealth precisely because the labour is so cheap.

‘The second thing is the belief that everything can stand still - wouldn’t it be nice if things could always be this way - tribal natives, migrant workers, nice backward Africans, and on the other hand, wealthy and educated whites. But it can’t stand still. The very things the whites brought here - capital and know-how - accelerated the process of change. The world is moving all the time. It is the reluctance to accept the necessity of change that will be the downfall of the whites in this country.’


And a little later:


They refuse to recognize that these very things by which they value their standard of civilization - education, money, technology - have in turn acted upon the lives of those around them, a chain reaction of unceasing change that cannot be halted, only delayed. 


This is the lie that Trump and MAGA are selling: that change can be stopped, that white supremacy can be maintained forever, with, as Bernstein puts it, “the lingering evergreen existence of master over the anonymous ‘native.’” 


But change cannot be stopped, and those advantages: education, money, technology - will never remain the exclusive property of white males. Countries like China have technology now, many countries are educating their people better, and all that is lacking is money for many more. Here in the US, women are now the majority of college graduates, and minority graduation rates have been rising for decades. 


But a lot of white people are freaking the hell out about it. From an elderly former neighbor who complained that “mexicans” were now everywhere he only used to see “americans” to people like my parents bemoaning that there isn’t really “america” anywhere these days - you can’t get away from “those people” and their culture. 


You can’t stop change, and no supremacy can be maintained forever. 


For South Africa, trying to maintain that supremacy cost them decades of advancement - and also many of their best minds, who fled the political persecution. Ditto for the Jim Crow South, and it is happening again for red states


The choice to leave was not easy for the Bernsteins, and Hilda mentions how torn she was throughout the book. 


I had made a discovery so simple that I could only think most people knew it so well they never thought it worth mentioning. For me it was something new, something I had to arrive at in my own way. It was simply this: that no single course of conduct is necessarily absolutely correct. It was the unresolved problem that had torn me in two - for the children’s sake, must I not leave? For the sake of all else, must I not stay? When I faced the fact that there was no clear solution, and never could be, the agony of trying to make a choice subsided.


There is no correct choice. There is no good choice, even. I felt this so much over the last decade and a half, torn between my wish for my children to have grandparents in their lives and the reality that my mom and sister were abusive to my wife. There were a series of imperfect compromises, until circumstances made the decision for me. I wish I had done things differently, but I honestly cannot think of a choice that would have been better either. There was no correct choice, because there was no reality in which my mom accepted and embraced my wife or agreed to let us live our lives our own way. When it comes to the decision to cut bait on a relationship, whether with a person or with one’s country, there is never anything easy about the decision. 


The excerpts of Nelson Mandela’s statement from the stand are amazing. (South African criminal procedure permits a defendant to give a statement, without cross examination, but limits its evidentiary value - a bit different from our own.) He talks about how “All lawful methods of expressing opposition to the policy of white supremacy had been closed,” and how gradually everything except silent submission was made illegal. Even striking for better wages was illegal, and Mandela had to go into hiding because of his role in organizing a strike. 


Also truly badass was Walter Sisulu, whose name I had heard previously, but didn’t really know that much about. Like Mandela, he became a respected lawyer. I have to quote part of the cross-examination. 


‘Why should people fear ninety days? The police don’t arrest people indiscriminately,’ Yutar remarks at one stage. 

Here Walter leans forward and raises his voice. ‘They arrest many people indiscriminately. For no offense people have been arrested.’

‘Would you like to make a political speech?’

‘I am not making a political speech. I am answering your question.’ As Yutar continues to question him on this point, he recounts how his wife and son have been arrested indiscriminately, how the police arrest without evidence; that he himself was arrested by Warrant Officer Dirker six times in 1962; and for once allows a bitter note in his voice as he says: ‘I wish you were an African and could find out what persecution really means. Then you would realise the situation in this country.’ 


As I have written before, white evangelicals in this country would lose their shit if they had to experience ONE SINGLE FUCKING DAY of being a black man in the United States. Sisulu was merely pointing out the blindingly obvious to a man blinded by power and privilege. 


Rusty as well got an excellent zinger in on Yutar. 


‘Is it not a communist tactic to attempt to discredit the police, and has not this tactic been used in this very case?” Yutar asks.

‘I think the police succeed in discrediting themselves very effectively without any assistance,’ Rusty replies. 


Govan Mbeki’s testimony is also excellent. He freely admits to being part of banned organizations, but has pleaded not guilty. 


‘[F]or the simple reason that to plead guilty would to my mind indicate a sense of moral guilt. I do not accept there is moral guilt attached to my actions.’


He lays out at one point the history of racism and white supremacy in policies stretching back decades. As he says, the name changed, but not the policy, and it can be summed up in the words of a former prime minister, translated as “The white man must always remain boss.” 


While the immediate results of the Rivonia Trial were not good (and were not expected to be), in the long game, it was the beginning of the end for Apartheid. Bernstein could see why.


The trial has stirred interest all over the world. The statements and behavior of the Rivonia men have earned them great respect, and brought tributes from individuals and organizations everywhere, from the World Peace Council that has awarded the Rivonia men a Gold Medal for peace, to students of London University who have elected Mandela as President of their Students’ Union. Such indications of understanding and support not only bring pleasure to the Rivonia accused; they also bring doubt and unease to the State and those who support the State. No word or deed from people of other countries has been lost or in vain. 


People sometimes wonder why I blog, why I determined in the wake of Trump’s election that I would no longer be silent, but would confront racism and hate, even when it came from my own family. This is why. Whether my parents ever change their minds, whether there is ever an admission by MAGA partisans that they were on the wrong side of right and wrong, I can help create that doubt and unease. I can remind people that they cannot count on vindication from history. And I can continue to proclaim that what they are doing is not in any way of God, and is not in any possible way Christ following. 


Bernstein also quotes the British press in the wake of the verdicts. The Telegraph - hardly a bastion of liberalism - had one of the best statements about what the trial was really about. 


[B]ut that is not the end, but rather the beginning of debate on the larger moral issue. It is the law itself that the South African Government has to justify at the Bar of the civilized world.

Whenever and wherever government rests on any other foundation than the general consent of the whole people, the patriotism of those repressed tends to appear in the eyes of the rulers as treason. 


The last quarter or so of the book is about the Bernstein’s flight on foot out of South Africa, which is a pretty harrowing story. 


One of the unexpected things in that section was a note that “Jim Fish” is apparently an African epithet roughly equivalent to “Jim Crow” in America - a mocking stereotype of black people. 


I will end with a quote from Esmond Romilly, who fought in the Spanish Civil War. It is the last sentence of his book, Boadilla.


“It is not with the happiness of the convinced communist, but reluctantly that I realize that there will never be peace or any of the things I like and want until that mixture of profit-seeking, self-interest, cheap emotion, and organized brutality which is called fascism has been fought and destroyed for ever.”


I think that sums up what fascism is, and why I too consider it part of my life work to speak out against it, and, I hope, live to see it beaten back yet again. 




Persephone Books:


Saplings by Noel Streatfeild

Mariana by Monica Dickens

Good Evening, Mrs. Craven by Mollie Panter-Downes

Miss Pettigrew Lives for a Day by Winifred Watson

The Home-Maker by Dorothy Canfield Fisher


Thursday, January 25, 2024

David Golder by Irene Nemirovsky

Source of book: I own this.


This is already the most unexpected book I have read this year. I will explain, but first, a bit about how I got this book. 


As readers of my Christmas Books series will know, this year I ended up at several used book stores around the holidays, and found myself (by some strange magic) in possession of a number of new (well, used…) volumes in my library. 


Since my wife and I started dating nearly 25 years ago, we have regularly visited California’s central coast (remember to take the left turn at Albuquerque if you want to get to Pismo Beach…) Back in the day, the delightful town of San Luis Obispo was home to two used book stores, which we made sure to visit along with the farmers’ market. 


Alas, Leon’s closed over a decade ago, but at least Phoenix Books is still there, with its always-quirky selection and vintage lesbian erotica high up on the walls. We stopped there on a rainy morning over the New Years holiday this year. And, well, came back with a stack of books. 


I had put Nemirovsky’s recently published final book, Suite Francaise, on my library list a few years ago, but wasn’t familiar with her other books. Lo and behold, not only did Phoenix have a copy of Suite Francaise, but also a hardback edition of her other four novels, for only eight bucks! You bet I got it. 


I decided to start reading one of the shorter books on my trip, and started at the beginning, with David Golder. 


In order to understand the rest of this post, however, some background is needed. To crib from Dickens, “This must be distinctly understood, or nothing wonderful can come of the story I am going to relate.” 


Who was Irene Nemirovsky? 


She was Jewish, born in what is now Ukraine, but then part of the Russian empire. When she was a teen, the family fled Russia ahead of the Bolsheviks, who were none too fond of either Jews or wealthy bankers. Eventually, the family settled in Paris. 


Irene married Michael Epstein, another banker, and they had two daughters. She started writing at a young age, and by age 26 had won acclaim for David Golder, her first novel. 


More success followed, but then catastrophe. She had always walked a bit of a fine line, having some of her works published by a far-right and antisemitic magazine, and cultivating relationships with people who were prejudiced against her ethnicity. She, like many other Jewish people in Europe over the centuries, formally converted to Catholicism in the 1930s. 


Unfortunately, none of this saved her. She and her husband were denied French citizenship. When the Nazis overran France, they were sent to Auschwitz, where she died of disease, and he was murdered in the gas chambers. Their daughters were able to escape with the help of friends - and took with them the manuscript for Suite Francaise which was written in notebooks. Strangely, they never examined the notebooks until 1998, only then realizing what they had. The book was finally published in 2004. 


I relate all of this because one of the most apparent issues with David Golder is its antisemitic stereotypes. 


I mean, the book is all about a Jewish banker, who has made his money unscrupulously, has a wife who doesn’t love him but always wants money, and who dies in part because of overwork, trying to chase that last deal. 


And there are red-headed Jewish stereotype characters too - Fagan is pretty much the rule here throughout the book. It’s definitely uncomfortable. 


But on the other hand, Nemirovsky is writing about her own people, and indeed, about her own family. She had a difficult relationship with her mother, who resented her closeness to her father, she was raised around bankers and investors, and so on. 


And of course, the fact that she literally died in the Holocaust. 


The book was written before Hitler came to power, and in France, which, for all its typical European antisemitism, was a pretty safe place to be Jewish at the time. (Arguably less hostile than either England or the United States.) 


Did she pander to popular taste to sell books? Perhaps. She did say later, after Hitler came to power, that she would have written the book very differently had she foreseen the future. 


Despite the stereotypes, the book is worthwhile. It is short - just a novella - and focuses on the title character and his decline and death. Aside from the main character, we don’t get much insight into the psyches of the other characters - although the depth of characterization for David Golder is impressive. 


Considering the youth and inexperience of the author, the level of writing is surprising - supposedly the publisher was shocked to discover that the author (hidden behind a pseudonym) was a young woman, not a middle-aged man. 


Readers of Tolstoy will notice a number of deliberate nods to The Death of Ivan Ilyich, although, apart from the idea of a greedy man dying, the books are very different stories. 


The genius of the book is that, while the reader starts out hating Golder, as the book progresses, he becomes more and more sympathetic. He isn’t merely a greedy capitalist, but a man driven by his early poverty, the demands of his ungrateful family, and his alienation as an immigrant who will never be permitted to assimilate, to seek security in the only thing he has: his business abilities. 


His wife marries him as an escape from her impoverished and violent home life. She never loves him, and instead carries on with a series of lovers at his expense. His daughter has been raised in that environment, and is likewise spoiled and money-focused. And, as it turns out, she probably isn’t even his biological daughter. 


The circles that his wife chooses to run in cost them a lot of money, but win them no respect or friendship. They will always be “those rich Jews,” no matter where they go. Accepted only so long as they are spending money. 


The book slowly unfolds all that he has lost over the years: his happy childhood in Russia, before the pogroms forced his family out, his youthful idealism, his hopes of a loving marriage from a woman who deceived him, his idolization of his beautiful daughter, his friends who die off as he ages, and eventually his vitality. His only true friend is Soifer, his last connection to his youth, who comes and plays cards with him even as he is dying. 


Over the course of reading the book, I went from wincing at the stereotypes to a genuine sympathy for the central character and an appreciation of Nemirovsky’s writing. It felt like every chapter unpeeled another layer, progressively revealing a more nuanced and complex life, a true tragedy rather than a comeuppance. 


I make a point of reading books in translation regularly, and this is the first of the year for me. You can look at the list of books in translation I have blogged about here. This book and the others in the collection were translated from French by Sandra Smith, who I think captured the unique cadence of Nemirovsky’s writing. There are a lot of ellipses, for example, a use of sentence fragments, and quotes embedded in the stream of consciousness. It isn’t difficult to read, but definitely distinctive.


There are three quotes that I think illuminate the themes of this book perfectly. 


And the others…His wife…His daughter…Yes, even her, he was no fool. He was nothing more than a money machine…Good for nothing else…Just pay, pay, and then, drop down dead.


His wife, Gloria, justifies her use of him this way as follows:


“But my dear, men like you and Marcus don’t work for their wives, do they? You work for yourselves…Yes, you do,” she insisted. “In the end, business is a drug, just like morphine is. If you couldn’t work, darling, you’d be as miserable as sin…” 


Joyce, his daughter, is no better. 


“Oh!” Joyce said suddenly. “It’s just that I have to have everything on earth, otherwise I’d rather die! Everything! Everything!” she repeated with an imperious, feverish look in her eyes. “I don’t know how the others do it! Daphne sleeps with old Behring for his money, but I need love, youth, everything the world has to offer…Money…Money too, of course, or rather beautiful dresses, jewellery! Everything. I mean it, poor Dad! I’m so madly in love with all of it. I so want to be happy, if only you knew! Otherwise, I really would rather die, I swear….But I’m not worried. I’ve always had everything I’ve ever wanted…” 


I have many reasons to be grateful for my life - but a wife who loves me and doesn’t need my money, and children who are resourceful and thoughtful people are high on the list. And also, a career situation that isn’t based on competition with others, but on helping people. 


I am looking forward to reading the other novellas in this collection, and eventually Suite Francaise. Nemirovsky is a unique voice, with a distinctive writing style. And also, fuck the Nazis for killing her. They deprived the world of so much goodness to feed their hate.