An obit for my step-grandmother to be published in the Veterans of the Abraham Lincoln Brigade newsletter, co-written by my mother and aunt.  I’ve already written about her here and here.

We are sad to report the death of Hilda Bell Roberts.  She passed away quietly in her sleep at home in Berkeley, California, on September 23 at the age of 93.

Hilda Bell was born in Philadelphia, PA, on December 21, 1915, of Russian-Jewish immigrant parents. Most of the women in her family worked in the garment industry, but she wanted to become a nurse and attended the Jewish Hospital School of Nursing, graduating in 1937.  She then immediately volunteered with the Medical Bureau to Aid Spanish Democracy.  She sailed on the S.S. Normandie and in May of 1937 arrived in Spain, where she worked as a staff nurse in the operating room at the Universidad and Casa Roja Hospitals 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. She was evacuated from Spain in December 1938 along with other International Brigade volunteers.

During the Second World War, Hilda joined the Army Nurse Corps and was stationed in the Pacific Theater in New Guinea from 1942 to 1944. She was in the military until 1946 and was awarded two bronze battle stars, one for saving patients during an enemy attack.

After the war,  Hilda settled in the Bay Area where she met and married her first husband, Kris Kirk. They had a son, Theodore, and she helped raise two stepsons, Neil and Keith.  She and her husband, Kris, became active in local politics, but left the Communist Party over disillusionment with Stalin.  Nevertheless, in 1953, the family’s passports were revoked by the State Department under Title 22 part 51, which at the time stated:”…persons who support the world communist movement…may not through use of United States passports further the purpose of that movement.”

Hilda studied first at San Francisco State College and later took advanced nursing courses at the University of California San Francisco through Langley Porter Hospital and received an advanced  degree in psychiatric nursing.  After Kris passed away in 1964, she married family friend, Bob Roberts. They moved to St. Helena, California when she was hired by the Napa Community College to teach courses in nursing.  Hilda continued working in the field when she retired from the college by working at Napa State Hospital as a psychiatric nurse.

After Bob passed away,  she became even more active in politics. In 1986, she went to Nicaragua with the Elders for Survival to pick coffee. She traveled more than once with Pastors for Peace on yellow school buses bringing computer and/or medical supplies to Cuba. She was on the famous trip when the buses were stopped at the border at Laredo, and the participants then protested by fasting and remaining on the buses in the extreme heat.  Later, Hilda was honored with others in Cuba where she was introduced to Fidel. She became active in Central America and Peace groups. Her stepdaughter remembers how she would protest, sometimes alone, in front of the St. Helena post office against U.S. policies.  Hilda also returned to Spain with other International Brigade veterans in 1996.

She continued her political enterprises when she moved to Berkeley in 1994. Her final years were shadowed by Alzheimers, but as long as she was able, she attended the weekly vigil of Women in Black opposing Israel’s occupation of the West Bank and Gaza, as well as other demonstrations and events.  Her friend and later, caretaker, Jane Welford said, “She was always willing to demonstrate and leaflet with me.”  In 2008, she was a smiling presence at the dedication of the Abraham Lincoln Brigade Monument on the Embarcadero in San Francisco.

Hilda is survived by her son, Theodore Kirk; his half brothers, Neil and Keith Kirk and their families; stepdaughter Elizabeth Karan; various nieces and nephews, especially Joan Paul, who with Jane took care of Hilda during her last years; and most especially the young people she has inspired with her life.

A memorial is planned for Sunday, December 20 from 2:00 to 4:00 at Redwood Gardens in Berkeley.

Hilda Bell Roberts presente!  She will always be with us.

Ethel Kirk
Lise Vogel
Elizabeth Roberts Karan