Betty Bloch, 1905-2002

Paula Bloch

Betty Bloch was born on the 12th of August 1905 – the year of the first Russian revolution – in Vilnius, the capital of Lithuania. Betty’s family was wealthy – her father, a self made businessman, her mother, much younger than her husband, was of German origin, but lived all her life in Russia. She was a well educated, intellectual woman who supported radical social and political thinking and attended meetings.

Betty was the second of three children – she had an older sister and younger brother. They lived in a big city flat and, as was the custom, there were several servants.

When very young, she went with her Nana to visit her Nana’s husband, who was in prison for his anti-government activities. She never forgot seeing this young worker behind iron bars – it made a strong impression on her for many years and influenced her thinking.

It was a happy childhood, but when the First World War broke out, the German army occupied Vilnius. The family decided to move to St Petersburg (Betty was 10) and she started high school. She recalled some events during the October Revolution – shooting, and women in long queues shouting for bread. There was so much hunger at that time. The family business was nationalised – factory, home and money gone.

Although they lost everything, this did not make them anti-Soviet. They returned to their flat in Vilnius for about three years. Betty’s parents decided to separate and the three children went with their mother to relatives in Germany. Her father died after they left Vilnius and her mother later became very ill and unfortunately died, leaving Betty an orphan at 15.

The three children were separated – Betty going to her uncle in Leipzig – relatives who were very orthodox Jews, making life very unhappy after her free-thinking family background. Betty picked up her schooling in German and matriculated successfully. She would have liked to study medicine, but that was not possible. Betty trained at the Froebel Institute in Pre-school Education. She loved this work, and was so outstanding, that she soon became pre-school director and organiser of kindergartens for the Jewish Welfare Organisation in Berlin.

Later, Betty became ill with tuberculosis, which threatened her life. She had to give away her work to rest in a sanatorium in Italy for 12 months, where she was lucky to regain her health. She became involved as an activist against the growing Fascist movement in Germany, becoming a Socialist, a member of the Communist Party and later, active in the underground movement.

Betty was attending university part-time and joined an organisation called The Red Students. She was now able to return to her teaching work as principal of a large pre-school, including an after school centre. Around that time she met Peter Bloch and later married him.

During the Hitler period Betty’s activities put her at high risk. The German prisons were filling with political activists, communists and those outspoken against Fascist and anti-Jewish actions by the growing Nazi war machine. Betty was interrogated by the Gestapo whilst pregnant. It was time to go! As young professional people Betty and Peter were very fortunate to be sponsored by Samuel Cohen, an Australian Jewish community leader.

They left Berlin on 9 November 1938 with me, their 10 months old daughter, the day before Krystallnacht, flying to London, going on by ship to Canada and then on to Australia.

We arrived on the 13th January, 1939, a day known as Black Friday as the temperature was 114° F. We were not met and had only ten pounds, which was all we were allowed to take from Germany. Betty and Peter found a flat to rent, briefly, in Paddington, and then moved to Bronte, not so popular at the time because of the threat of invasion from the sea.

They sought out people with similar beliefs wanting to defeat the Nazi fascists, people with a common goal for a democratic society and a better deal for working people. Betty and Peter’s first and closest friends were Cath and Lance Sharkey, and Freda and Bill Brown. They were all members of the Communist Party, comrades with visions of peace and egalitarianism, and remained life-long friends.

Betty scrubbed floors until she learned English, now her third language. My beautiful German shepherd dog had to be given away because we were too poor to feed both her and us. I remember the story of Betty looking in the butcher’s windows asking for “bargain” – the sign in the window, and bringing home half a pigs head or offal, which was a treat for us. Betty made cream cheese and pickled herrings, and I remember one friend, who immediately left the table when he was informed that it was pickled but uncooked fish. I recall, sitting in my cot, a mattress on top, mum sitting in a chair beside me, in total darkness, listening to the air-raid siren.

When Cathy was born, in 1942, mum said we were not to speak German any more so that Cathy wouldn’t have any language problems.

The Society
After the Second World War, Betty was active in the “Sheepskins for Russia” campaign and Jessie Street asked her to join the Australia-USSR Friendship Society. She also asked Betty to undertake friendship work, in particular, in the Russian Social Club, because of her wonderful organising skills and ability to speak Russian. Betty acted as Honorary Secretary for many years, providing assistance to many migrants coming here from labour camps.

In the early 60’s Betty changed the focus of her friendship activity to the A-USSR-FS, and following her retirement from teaching in 1973, she became a full-time voluntary worker for the Society. She was elected Chairperson of Sydney Branch in that year and held the position until 97, then becoming a patron in 98.

Betty initiated many major activities, cultural events, inviting important guests for annual symposia and forums on the USSR, children’s art exchange programs, and various other exhibitions. Her organising skills were invaluable, as well as her welcoming and friendly manner, and fluent Russian.

Betty was a member of the society’s National Executive from 1964, representing the Friendship Society on several occasions in the USSR and on her last visit in 1987 was invited to Armenia where she arranged for a concert group to visit and tour Australia.

Betty was always very generous and independent, especially in relation to paying her own travelling expenses for her activities in relation to the organisations she supported.

In 1986 Betty was given the highest honour by the Soviet Friendship Organisation when they awarded her the Order of Friendship Medal for her contribution to friendship between the Australian and Soviet people. She is one of only two Australians to be recognised in this way.

After the collapse of the Soviet Union, Betty, in 92, initiated and carried forward the Chernobyl Children’s Fund to raise money for the children affected by nuclear radiation. Medical supplies were sent and two Russian doctors were sponsored to receive specialist training at the Sydney Children’s Hospital. Betty worked on the Jessie Street Centenary Committee in 1998/99, and on her initiative, Waverley Council dedicated a small park in honour of Jessie’s work.

Even as late as 1999, at the age of 94, Betty established an appeal to help starving indigenous Inuit children in Siberia.

As her health failed Betty continued to maintain a wide circle of friends and activities, attending the SSO, opera, theatre, cinema, reading, continuing to actively follow local and international politics and events. Our mother, Betty, was a wonderful example of a life well used, dedicated to promoting the finest values, a courageous woman, and we love her for that.