A first-time author, finally published at age 96

Nonagenarian writer Harry Bernstein had an entire life's worth of material for 'The Invisible Wall,' a memoir about anti-Semitism.

harry bernstein 88 298 (photo credit: AP)
harry bernstein 88 298
(photo credit: AP)
Nonagenarian writer Harry Bernstein had an entire life's worth of material for 'The Invisible Wall,' a memoir about anti-Semitism and the difficulties of bridging the religious divide. 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 almost as 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. His mother always dreamed of moving to America and a better life, but many of the problems that plagued them in England, such as poverty and her husband's drinking and abuse, followed them to Chicago and eventually New York City. "The first 25 years of my life were very sad," Bernstein says. "But the years that followed made up for it, after I got married. They were wonderful years." Bernstein's two-bedroom house near the Jersey shore is covered with reminders of his life with his wife, including pictures of the two in Mexico, where they vacationed every winter, and the artwork they collected. Harry and Ruby Bernstein met at a dance in New York City, and after dating for a year, got married. While Ruby Bernstein was also Jewish and the two were married by a rabbi, Harry Bernstein hasn't been to synagogue since he was about 12 and doesn't consider himself a practicing Jew. Since the two were married during the Great Depression and money was scarce, their honeymoon consisted of a weekend walking through Central Park before Ruby Bernstein had to be back at work the following Monday. The Bernsteins had two children, Adraenne and Charles. His daughter, who lives in Brooklyn, said she had the sense that her father had a story inside him that he needed to get out. "For people who don't know him, I think it would it would be surprising," she said, referring to the fact that he wrote his first book so late in life. "For me as his daughter, knowing how disciplined, and hardworking, and talented he is, it was not a surprise." The Invisible Wall has already been published in England and Sweden and will also be released in Germany, Italy, Finland and Norway this year. Due to the age at which he wrote the book and his challenging childhood, The Invisible Wall has led to inevitable comparisons with Frank McCourt's memoir, Angela's Ashes, a book about McCourt's Irish upbringing. Now that he's got the hang of book writing, Bernstein says he could probably write a few more and is considering writing about his marriage. His second book, The Dream, is almost finished and centers on the family's move to the United States; Ballantine has already signed on as the American publisher. Bernstein cranks out his pages on a typewriter in his bedroom, saying that the computer nearby is too complicated for anything more than checking his e-mail. And at his age, he allows himself a certain latitude in the writing process, meaning that instead of worrying about deadlines, he just writes until he doesn't feel like writing anymore. "I've been trained to finish something you start, don't leave anything undone," he says. "I just feel I'm not satisfied until I finish what I start. And I will not be satisfied until I start something new."