Hymie Barsel was born on September 11, 1920 in Fordsburg, Johannesburg, South Africa to Faiga and Moishe Barsel, both of Litvak heritage. He was raised in a Zionist oriented home. He suffered from epilepsy which was ill understood at that time, eventually receiving treatment from Dr. Max Joffe, also a Zionist. Dr. Joffe taught him that Anti Semitism could never be destroyed unless all racial prejudice was similarly destroyed, this concept of equality of all humanity was at that time the basis of the understanding of the term Communist – a philosophy of human upliftment followed by many in the liberation movement.
Hymie became progressively more involved in the Youth Liberation movement and began working as an organizer and then secretary of the “Friends of the Soviet Union’ (FSU). He was sent to Durban where he worked with the ANC and the Natal Indian Congress (NIC), this is where he was confronted by the violence offered by the Grey Shirts (a Fascist organization).
In April 1938, whilst at the Germiston Town Hall in a meeting for the Communist Party, Hymie was attacked by the “Black Shirts” (another Fascist organization), a group who had a vested interest in maintaining discrimination and oppression against black South Africans.
Hymie organized FSU branches throughout South Africa, and organized medical assistance for the Soviet Union during the War. He was appointed Secretary of the Johannesburg Medical Aid for Russia. During the War, South Africa and the Soviet Union were allies, and Hymie sought diplomatic ties between South Africa and Russia – Russia opened a diplomatic Mission in South Africa, but this was not reciprocated by South Africa in Russia. After the war, he married Esther Levin on December 4, 1945, another Litvak who had been born in Raguva, Lithuania. Together Hymie and Esther worked to organize the Congress of the People (COP) in June 1955. Hymie was famous for selling and distributing COP literature.
Hymie and Esther lent their energies to the organization of the Women’s March in Pretoria on August 9, 1956 where 20,000 women marched and submitted petitions protesting the “Pass Laws” a fundamental building block of Apartheid. This organization that was partly led and created by the Barsel’s is now accorded a National Holiday in the new South Africa.
Hymie was charged with Treason and arrested on December 13, 1956. His Co-accused included Nelson Mandela and other luminaries. Esther was left behind to care for the three children – Sonia then 8 years old, Linda then 5, and the baby – Merle, aged 8 months. Eventually the South African Government withdrew charges against Hymie on April 20, 1959 after having subjected him to torture, solitary confinement and other pernicious forms of severe punishments.
Hymie was then subjected to a banning order in March 1964. Both he and his wife Esther were then arrested on July 3, 1964 and charged in the Bram Fischer Trial. Esther was sentenced to three years hard labor, with a banning order upon her release from Women’s Prison, while Hymie was acquitted. He was placed under house arrest with his daughters from 1965 to 1968.
On April 7, 1968 Esther was released from hard labor, but subject to a banning order. Both were subjected to ongoing harassment. When their eldest daughter Sonia was married, Esther and Hymie were required by the South African Security Police to provide the guest list, or not be allowed to attend their daughter’s wedding. They refused to comply, notwithstanding that all their friends were either in prison, banned or in hiding. Only days before the wedding did the Police relent and allow them to attend Sonia’s wedding. Esther and Hymie we not allowed to attend religious services or meet with friends. When Hymie’s mother – Feiga died, Esther was not allowed to attend her funeral.
Both were required to report to the Police weekly. On one such report, Hymie was made to sign a “Parole Book” instead of the “Banning Order Book”, both located in the same place. He was then re-charged by the Police for signing the wrong book, an action he was forced to take.
Hymie died on March 13, 1987 of heart and kidney failure. His heart had been weakened by the torture he had been subjected to whilst fighting for the equality of his African brethren. He was buried in Johannesburg in a traditional Jewish funeral.