Pessel Podbrez (name given at birth, later changed to Pauline) was born in Kovna, Lithuania in 1922, the eldest of two children. In 1933, the family immigrated to Durban, Natal (now KwaZulu-Natal – KZN), South Africa, to join her father, who had been there since 1929. Her father was a Bundist, and once in South Africa became a member of left-wing circles that included the Communist Party of South Africa (CPSA) (now the South African Communist Party - SACP) and stalwarts such as Eddie Roux. He used to hold meetings at home, and the young Pauline would hide on the balcony and listen to the conversation. Although Jewish, her father was an atheist and her mother paid no heed to religion. Nonetheless, her grandmother was religious, which was a source of tension for the young Pauline: ‘It used to hurt me terribly to see that none of the rituals were observed in our household; for example, keeping kosher and lighting Friday night candles.’
In 1936, Pauline left school and moved to Johannesburg, Transvaal (now Gauteng) where she began to attend CPSA rallies and distribute leaflets. She joined two study groups, the Communist Youth League and the Labour League of Youth, and through them became part of the left-wing movement. After returning to Durban, she joined the Left Book Club, the Liberal Study Group, and the CPSA. Her involvement with radical politics led her to become a trade unionist, and she became secretary of the African Commercial Distributive Workers Union in Durban, where she met the trade unionist H. A. Naidoo, founder of the Natal Sugar Workers Union.
In 1943 she moved to Cape Town, which was seen to be more tolerant of inter-racial unions, and married Naidoo. Here he became an organiser of the industrial sub-committee of the CPSA’s central committee and worked for The Guardian, while Pauline continued with union work. Her parents were opposed to the marriage because Naidoo was Indian, and consequently cut off relations with her.
Pauline continued her political in Cape Town selling The Guardian door-to-door and organising the Sweet Workers Union, of which she was local secretary and national president. She also became secretary of the Industrial Council.
However, the introduction of grand apartheid legislation, in particular the Mixed Marriages Act, made life increasingly difficult for the couple, and in 1950 Pauline’s husband was deported to Durban. The following year, with approval of the CPSA, the couple decided to leave South Africa for London. H. A. (as Naidoo was known) stowed away on a ship and Pauline travelled using a passport borrowed from a friend.
Once in the United Kingdom, the British Communist Party sent them to work for Budapest Radio. After three years, they became disillusioned with events in Hungary and returned to Britain, eventually leaving the Party. Their outspoken criticism of Eastern European communism alienated them from other members, and they became increasingly isolated.
Having always fully identified with the Party, Pauline explained the fervor of her commitment: “I always felt that I had more in common with my comrades than with the Jewish community as such… Loyalty to the party was comparable to religious faith.”
In 1970, H. A. died in London, according to Pauline, from a broken heart. She returned to Cape Town in 1990, where she lived with her second husband, Terry Callaghan. She has recorded her experiences in the book, White Girl in Search of the Party.
Pauline Podbrey passed away in 2009.
- Scanlon, H. 2007. “Representation and reality: Portraits of Women’s Lives in the Western Cape 1948-1976”. HSRC Press: Cape Town