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The Invisible Wall

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08.12.24

The Invisible Wall

Harry Bernstein is a wonder.  At the age of 93, he wrote a memoir of his World War I-era childhood in a Lancashire mill town.  He sent the manuscript off to a publisher, to several of them, with only rejections for response.  At the last one, the manuscript languished on a desk unread for a year, until finally an editor read it, liked it, and sent it to a colleague in another firm.  It was something of a miracle that the manuscript got any attention at all since Bernstein had no agent and had sent it unsolicited.  The Invisible Wall was published in 2007 when Bernstein was 96, and since then, he has written a sequel, The Dream, and in 2009, at the age of 99, will publish his third memoir, about his beloved wife of 67 years, Ruby.

Harry was born in 1910 in Stockport, England, an outpost of Manchester in the industrial north of the country.  His mother and father had both fled the pogroms in Poland and landed on the same street in Stockport, where they met and married. The street was probably like any other in working class neighborhoods, except that the few feet of cobblestones divided Jews on one side from Christians on the other and, with minor exceptions, they did not mix.  The Christians worked in the mills, the Jews worked in the tailoring shops, and all lived in poverty, but each considered himself a notch above the other socially.

The youngest of five children, Harry begins his story at the age of four, playing hopscotch in the street on a midsummer evening.  A Jewish girl asks him to run an errand for her at the Christian pub down the street and he becomes the unwitting catalyst setting in motion a Romeo and Juliet tale of Shakespearean proportions.

Harry’s family is desperately poor because his father drinks away his meager earnings, forcing his proud mother to open a shop in their home, selling fruit discarded from the market.  He and his siblings attend the Jewish cheder and, while walking to and from school, must endure slurs and beatings from Christian thugs until a kind Christian teenager across the street becomes their protector.  Harry’s sister Lily’s chance to try for a scholarship offers a glimmer of hope of survival for the whole family.  But school, especially a Christian school, is not something the brutish father approves of.

Harry tells his story without sentimentality, which makes it all the more poignant and moving.  He draws each character expertly, so that the reader cares about each one, especially Harry’s mother and his sister Lily, and wants to know what becomes of them.

Harry and his family finally got their mother’s wish to go to America after World War I, which is the subject of The Dream.  He did not see his childhood home for many decades.  When he finally did return, although much of the town had changed and the slums were being torn down for new development, he did find his street more or less intact, for that moment.  One woman from his childhood remained, and she invited him in for tea.  He realized then that the only difference between his house and hers was the crucifix hanging on the wall.  In all other respects, the Jews and Christians had lived alike.

Harry has said there are many invisible walls that divide people, as many today as there were in his childhood.  He would like to forget the first 25 years of his life, difficult as they were, but as he has gotten older, they have come alive for him.  Fortunately, he has brought that time and place alive for readers and gives us pause to think of the absurdity of the invisible walls we erect and maintain.  There is no more perfect book to read and share among people of all religions at this holiday season.  To read The Invisible Wall, visit or call Tazewell County Public Library at 988-2541.

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