At 96, Author Debuts With Acclaimed Memoir

Harry Bernstein, 96, holds a Swedish version of his book, "The Invisible Wall" at his Brick, N.J. home Wednesday, March 14, 2007. What started out as almost a form of therapy eventually turned into a book that chronicles his childhood in a northern England mill town. (AP photo/Mel Evans)
AP Photo/Mel Evans
Into his 90s, decimated by the loss of his beloved wife, and alone at night with the memories of a rough and sad childhood spent battling an alcoholic father and vicious anti-Semitism, Harry Bernstein decided to write.

What started out as almost a form of therapy eventually turned into a book called "The Invisible Wall" that chronicles his childhood in a northern England mill town and — considering that it wasn't published until he was 96 — serves as an inspiration for aspiring authors.

Bernstein began writing "The Invisible Wall" when he was 93 as a way to deal with his memories and the loneliness he felt after his wife of almost seven decades, Ruby, passed away from leukemia in 2002.

"I didn't know what the heck to do with myself. ... You know when you get into your 90s like I am, there's nowhere else to think except the past. There's no future to think about. There's very little present," says Bernstein, who gets around his New Jersey house slowly, with the aid of a cane, and is the sole survivor in his family.

"So you think of the past, particularly at nighttime when you're lying in bed. And it all came back. So I began to write, and I was occupied, and it was really the best therapy I could have had."

Bernstein first sent the finished manuscript to New York publishers but, having no luck, he sent it to the London office of Random House. There the book sat for about a year until it came across the desk of editor Kate Elton, who described it as "unputdownable."

"I think he's a most fantastic writer," Elton said. "He creates the characters of his family so vividly and tells such a moving story."

The book's title refers to the barrier that divides Bernstein's side of the street — the Jewish side — from the Christian side in his hometown of Stockport, near Manchester, a separation he likens to two enemy camps that have an uneasy truce. About the only thing that united the two sides of the street was poverty, with most people working in the mills on salaries that only allowed them to get by week to week.

"We understood we were not to involve ourselves with them, and they likewise with us. The Jewish boys and girls had their games on their side. They (the Christians) played their games on their side. It was two separate worlds," Bernstein says.

In his book, he recalls a childhood often spent running from Christian kids intent on beating him up or drunken Gentile neighbors who would stand on the street, yelling, "Who killed Christ? Bloody Jews."

The bias went both ways. Bernstein recalls that when his family walked by a church, they were instructed to spit as a way to show contempt.

The book is centered on one relationship that crosses the religious divide: Bernstein's sister, Lily, falls in love with a schoolmate, Arthur Forshaw. The couple is drawn to each other by their love of books and learning, but when Bernstein's family finds out about the relationship they try to send her away to the United States. When Lily and Arthur marry in secret, the family sits shiva for her, meaning that in their eyes, she is dead.

"Could there be anything more cruel than that kind of bigotry, that if a girl or a boy marries in the other faith, he's considered or she's considered dead?" says Bernstein, who speaks clearly in a steady voice that rarely wavers, and vividly remembers many details of his childhood.

If there is a heroine in "The Invisible Wall," says Bernstein, it is his mother, who struggled to provide for the family and protect them from a father who preferred to spend his time and money at neighborhood pubs.

Like his sister, Bernstein always loved reading and literature; besides writing freelance articles throughout his life, he edited trade magazines and read prospective movie scripts for motion picture companies in New York.