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Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people should be aware that this website contains names, images, and voices of deceased persons.

In addition, some articles contain terms or views that were acceptable within mainstream Australian culture in the period in which they were written, but may no longer be considered appropriate.

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Bloch, Betty (1905–2002)

by Paula Bloch and Cathy Bloch

Betty Bloch was born in Russia but when she died, aged 96, she had been a proud citizen of Australia for more than 60 years.

Hers was a life well lived, a life dedicated to working for the causes of world peace, international friendship and the rights of children and women.

Betty was born in 1905 in Vilnius, the capital of Lithuania. Her father was a self-made businessman; her mother, much younger than her husband, was of German origin, but had lived all her life in Russia. She was a well-educated, intellectual woman who supported radical social and political thinking.

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

When very young, Betty went with her grandmother to visit her grandfather, who was in prison for his anti-government activities. She never forgot seeing this man behind iron bars.

Betty had a happy childhood, but when World War I broke out, the German army occupied Vilnius. The family moved to St Petersburg and Betty, then 10, began high school. She recalled some events of the October Revolution of 1917 shooting, and women in long queues shouting for bread.

The family business was nationalised but, although they lost everything factory, home and money they did not become anti-Soviet.

In 1919, Betty's mother took the three children to stay with relatives in Germany. Their father died shortly after they left Russia and then their mother also died, leaving Betty a penniless 15-year-old orphan. The children were separated, with Betty going to relatives in Leipzig.

She finished her schooling there and went on to train at the Froebel Institute in preschool education. She loved this work and became pre-school director and organiser of kindergartens for the Jewish Welfare Organisation in Berlin.

At 25, ill with tuberculosis, she had to rest in a sanatorium in Italy for a year, where she luckily regained her health.

On her return to Berlin, she joined the German Communist Party and, later, the underground movement. She also met, and married, Peter Bloch.

When Hitler came to power in 1933, Betty's activities put her at high risk. She was Jewish, a communist and a political activist. In 1937 she was interrogated by the Gestapo while pregnant with her first child. It was time to leave.

As young professionals Betty and Peter were among the fortunate few to be sponsored to this country by the Australian Jewish community. They fled Berlin with their 10-month-old daughter, Paula, in 1938, the day before Kristallnacht.

The family arrived in Australia in January 1939, on a day when the temperature soared to 45 degrees. They had only 10 pounds to their name. After briefly renting a flat in Paddington, Betty and Peter settled in Bronte. From 1941 to 1968, the family rented 10 Pacific Street, a cottage on top of a hill overlooking Bronte Beach. Only after Peter's death in 1968 did Betty own her own house.

Our family was small with the birth of Cathy in 1942 there were just four of us. But we had an extended family in the friends and comrades our parents met in the Communist Party. Betty and Peter had joined the party within weeks of arriving in Australia. Their primary concern then was to warn the Australian people of the danger of fascism and war in Germany.

Ironically, at the outbreak of war, they were declared to be enemy aliens, had their camera and radio confiscated, and had to report regularly to the police.

They were both active party members and No. 10 was a kind of open house. There were lots of meetings and almost as many social gatherings.

As with so many migrants, their professional qualifications were not recognised, so Betty scrubbed floors until she learned English, her third language although when Cathy was born we were not allowed to speak German any more and Peter worked as a carpenter to support the family.

During the war, Betty became active in the Sheepskins for Russia campaign, where she met Jessie Street, who asked her to join the Australia-USSR Friendship Society and to undertake friendship work, in particular in the Russian Social Club. Betty was the club's honorary secretary for many years, assisting many migrants coming here from labour camps.

She was also active in a community campaign to have two preschool centres built in the Waverley municipality in 1945.

In 1950, Betty returned to kindergarten teaching, first at Daceyville then as the director of a Surry Hills day nursery. From there she became director at Erskineville Demonstration Kindergarten, run by the Kindergarten Union (KU). While employed by the KU, she went on holiday to the Soviet Union, particularly to look at the preschool education system there. On her return, she spoke favourably of her experiences at a number of meetings. The KU subsequently sacked her, saying that, as she wasn't KU-trained, it no longer wanted her to run its kindergarten. She was devastated, but quickly gained another appointment, this time as director of Miranda kindergarten, where she worked from 1964 until she retired, aged 68, in 1973.

In the 1950s, the worst period of the Cold War, life was hard for our parents, particularly after the prime minister, Bob Menzies, introduced legislation into Federal Parliament to outlaw the Communist Party. The bill had been challenged in the High Court as being unconstitutional and the day on which the court was to bring down its decision was a memorable one in our house.

Fearing persecution and prosecution not surprisingly, given their past experience Betty and Peter had piled most of their political books in the backyard, ready to burn them if the High Court challenge failed. It was for them a terrible echo of Berlin in 1933 when Nazi students burned books shortly after Hitler had been elected to power.

When they heard the court's decision to declare the bill unconstitutional, they hugged each other and joyfully carried their precious library back into the house. After that they both threw themselves into the referendum campaign to defeat the bill. The defeat of this legislation by a vote of the Australian people a proud moment in Australia's history reaffirmed our parents' belief in this country's democratic traditions.

In the early '60s Betty changed the focus of her friendship activity to the Australia-USSR Friendship Society; after her retirement from teaching in 1973, she became a full-time voluntary worker for the society. She was elected chairwoman of the Sydney branch in that year and held the position until 1997. The next year she became a patron.

Betty, who continued to attend SSO concerts, the opera and the theatre until the end of her life, initiated many cultural events and other major activities, inviting guests for annual symposiums and forums on the Soviet Union, children's art exchange programs and various other exhibitions. Her organising skills were invaluable, along with her welcoming and friendly manner and fluent Russian.

She was a member of the society's national executive from 1964, representing the Friendship Society on several occasions in the Soviet Union and on her last visit in 1987 was invited to Armenia, where she arranged for a concert group to tour Australia.

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

After the collapse of the Soviet Union Betty initiated and carried forward the Chernobyl Children's Fund in 1992 to raise money for the children affected by nuclear radiation. Medical supplies were sent and two Russian doctors sponsored to receive specialist training at the Sydney Children's Hospital. In 1999, Betty established an appeal to help starving Inuit children in Siberia.

Our family functioned on fairly democratic lines and as children we were included in discussions and in many activities with our parents, such as May Day, the New Theatre and all the peace rallies and marches.

Betty took part in campaigns against nuclear weapons, the Vietnam War, anti-foreign bases and other causes. She was also passionate about the ABC and deeply committed to reconciliation and justice for the indigenous people of this country. But she didn't push her children into political activity. We both even went to Sunday school at Bronte Park. We brought home the little Jesus cards and can still sing Build on the Rock.

The only thing either of us can remember being told we had to do was attend Jewish scripture when we went to high school. Naturally we questioned this directive, to which Mum responded, "If you don't, you'll grow up ignorant." And what could we say to that? If there was one thing we were not to do, it was to grow up ignorant.

Betty also campaigned hard for women's rights. She was a member of the Union of Australian Women, the Women's International League for Peace and Freedom, and the Jessie Street Committee. She worked on the Jessie Street Centenary Committee in 1998-99 and on her initiative, Waverley Council dedicated a small park in honour of Jessie Street's work.

Betty was brilliant at organisation. At a party to celebrate her 90th birthday party, the local Federal member, Jeanette McHugh, said she always thought Betty was an organisation, and that's not far off the mark.

Ninety-six years is a long life, even for a fighter like Betty. But it was a rich life. She was an excellent educator, a dedicated campaigner for peace, international friendship and women's rights, a brave fighter against fascism, a loyal and generous friend. She was a courageous woman, dedicated to promoting the finest values.

She was also an amazing mother. She loved us dearly and we knew it. And we loved her back.

Original publication

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Citation details

Paula Bloch and Cathy Bloch, 'Bloch, Betty (1905–2002)', Obituaries Australia, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, https://oa.anu.edu.au/obituary/bloch-betty-32759/text40731, accessed 1 February 2023.

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