Jews risked lives in anti-apartheid fight, author says

Four years ago, Hilda and Rusty Bernstein emptied the contents of a large manila envelope onto a table in their home just outside of Oxford, England.

Out tumbled messages Rusty Bernstein had written on cloth scraps smuggled out of a South African jail in 1963.

For journalist Glenn Frankel, the scraps were pure inspiration.

“We were all transported back to 1963 to a time when [the Bernsteins] were caught in a web…irrevocably tangled,” Frankel said.

Frankel’s new book, “Rivonia’s Children: Three Families and the Cost of Conscience in White South Africa,” tells the story of the Bernsteins and other Johannesburg Jews who joined in the dangerous fight against apartheid.

Frankel, a Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist and editor of the Washington Post magazine, spoke about his book at the Marin Jewish Community Center in San Rafael recently.

“Many people fought for the liberation of South Africa,” Frankel said. “I focused on a small group of Jews — not because their sacrifice was more, but because they made one.”

To have white skin during apartheid could have meant a comfortable life. But this small group of Jews made a choice to fight for their ideals, “up against rigid police state methods,” Frankel said.

Many, including the Bernsteins, were later exiled or fled the country.

“In exile, they kept going, they formed an alliance and kept it going. For whites to join the fight seemed to be a remarkable thing. It was the ultimate extension of these Jewish people caught up in a remarkable moment.”

While the group’s members rebelled against Jewish religion and raised their children as atheists, they were still part of a very small but important Jewish movement.

“They repeatedly denied that their Jewish background played a role in their political views,” Frankel said. “I often felt they protested too much.” He added that 80 percent of leftist white South Africans were Jewish.

Frankel spoke in depth about the Bernsteins’ plight, describing their involvement in dangerous anti-government, underground activities.

“They didn’t often tell their kids what they were up to,” Frankel said, “but the teenagers often knew enough to be frightened to death.”

Eventually, Rusty Bernstein was imprisoned.

Hilda Bernstein, in order to see her husband, made an arrangement with the head of security in Johannesburg. She would be allowed 10 minutes to bring Rusty his clean laundry and take out the dirty for washing “in a guarded, business-like fashion.”

“This was risky,” Frankel said. “She wasn’t just a housewife. They [the government] had a file on her. She was on a list to be arrested.”

But, Frankel explained, “she wanted to see Rusty.”

Hilda Bernstein would visit the jail and hand over the parcel of clean laundry to the guards. A short while later, she would take home a bundle of used laundry. She was allowed no contact with her imprisoned husband.

Desperate for some sign of communication from Rusty she would go through the laundry painstakingly.

“Then one day, as she held up one of her husband’s shirts to the window, she noticed a ray of light shining through a gap near the collar,” Frankel said.

Closer inspection of the flaw in the shirt revealed notes her husband had scribbled in pencil on strips of cloth neatly cut to the size of shirt collars and concealed in the collar.

Frankel went on to describe how she smuggled in a ballpoint cartridge in a banana.

“Rusty hated bananas, and his wife hoped he would know that she was trying to get something across to him,” he said.

Rusty Bernstein was eventually released from jail. And in 1964, the Bernsteins left South Africa due to their fears and the strain it placed on their family.

The book, Frankel hopes, will preserve the memory of such South Africans.

“People like Hilda and Rusty are responsible, to a surprising degree, for the racial reconciliation in the new South African nation,” Frankel asserts. “Soon all these people will be gone and with them a page in history.”

But not everyone will forget about them.

When South African President Nelson Mandela wrapped up a hectic first visit to the United Kingdom in the mid-1990s, he held a press conference at the South African Embassy in London’s Trafalgar Square. The building was once the symbol of apartheid and the site of frequent picketing in the ’60s.

“Talking about racial reconciliation in the new South Africa, Mandela pointed to a curly red-haired, young photographer and acknowledged that it was partly thanks to the efforts of people like his parents,” Frankel said.

The young man was Keith Bernstein, Rusty and Hilda’s son.

“Rivonia’s Children:Three Families and the Cost of Conscience in White South Africa” by Glenn Frankel (336 pages, Farrar Straus & Giroux, $25).

Aleza Goldsmith

Aleza Goldsmith is a former J. staff writer.