Hilda Bell Roberts, 1915–2009

By Jane Welford
Thursday December 03, 2009 - 08:56:00 AM

I knew Hilda Roberts for the last 16 years of her life. She had a most remarkable life. She grew up in Philadelphia in a secular Jewish family. After finishing nursing school in Philadelphia in 1937, she joined the Medical Bureau to Aid Spanish Democracy, a group of medical personnel leaving for Spain to help the wounded from the fight against the fascists. She was 21 years old. She was so impressed with the many doctors who treated the patients, the doctors and the nurses equally, that she never forgot this. As a student nurse, the nurses would have to stand when a doctor entered the room.  

The complete lack of racism among the Spanish people and among the international battalions also greatly impressed her. The courage and creativity and energy of the Spanish people in their fight to defend their new-found democracy was her lifelong inspiration. In Spain she worked as a staff nurse in the operating room at the Universidad Hospital and the Cruz Roja Hospital in Murcia before transferring to the Aragon front. There she traveled with the autochir, a mobile hospital that set up surgical units in a variety of temporary locations, including an unused railway tunnel, a nut factory and a mansion. Hilda Bell was evacuated from Spain in December 1938 along with other International Brigade volunteers.  

When she returned to the United States she worked to pay back a friend’s mother who had loaned her the money to go to nursing school. Then in 1942 Hilda joined the Army Nurse Corps and was sent to Australia and Papua, New Guinea. In Papua the military personnel were instructed not to let the indigenous people know how extremely intelligent they were! Hilda worked in a hospital that treated mostly American and Japanese people wounded in the battles at sea. Many soldiers had terrible burns.  

Hilda moved to San Francisco after the war, where she earned her M.S. in teaching nursing.  

After retiring from nursing, Hilda became involved in anti-nuclear work, housing and indigenous rights. She kept in touch with several political prisoners. She began standing with the weekly vigil of Berkeley Women in Black in 1989. As a Jew she was outraged by the actions of the Israeli government toward the indigenous people of Palestine. She wrote our weekly flyer for years. She went to Nicaragua in 1986 to help with the coffee picking and went back in 1990 before the election there. She went to Cuba several times, bringing medical aid, and participated in the 23-day hunger strike to force the release of a Little Yellow School Bus destined for Cuban school children that was held up at the Texas border in the heat of the summer.  

Hilda went back to Spain in 1996 with other surviving International Brigade veterans to be honored by the young people for having come to their grandparents aid in the 1930s.  

Hilda was very committed to working people’s struggles. She was on the picket lines and at the barricades at many of the hotels in the Bay Area as the workers were fighting to improve their conditions. She fought for the Radisson Hotel workers (Now Doubletree), the Claremont Hotel workers, The Woodfin Hotel workers and workers at the hotels in San Francisco. She worked very hard on the signature gathering drive so that the Berkeley Bowl workers could join the UFCW union, and she picketed and sang at the Berkeley Honda strike. Hilda was a longtime member of the Rockin’ Solidarity Labor Heritage Chorus led by Pat Wynne.  

In her last years Hilda was diagnosed with a very rare form of blood cancer called Waldenstrom’s macroglobulinaemia. It made her blood very thick and increasingly affected her memory. Even though this must have been very difficult for her, she was able to keep an amazing sense of humor and lightness of being. She kept her great compassion for the suffering of the human race even during her most difficult times and she always loved participating in world improving work, nature and sitting in the warm sun.  


Hilda’s memorial talking circle will be held from 1:30–4:30 p.m. Dec. 20 at Redwood Gardens Community Room, 2951 Derby St. Bring food and stories to share. For more information, call Jane Welford at 548-6310.