Sunday, August 23, 2015

Harry Bernstein, Modern Day Hero

The photo is of Harry and Ruby Bernstein, married for 67 years. Bernstein, a man who never gave up as a writer, has a mind-bending story. He wrote 40 books and destroyed most of the manuscripts as they were rejected, as all of them were. When he was 93 Ruby died and the pain was so intense that he wrote a memoir to help him cope with his grief.

He took three years to finish the book which he called The Invisible Wall. It’s about his bleak early childhood years, growing up in the Cheshire/Lancashire mill town of Stockport in the early 1900s.

Harry’s parents had fled persecution in the Pale of Settlement (created in Russia by Catherine the Great in 1791), seeking a refuge in England. They settled in the dead-end East Street in a very poor part of town, Daw Bank, where Jews lived on one side and Christians on the other. Harry was born in 1910. He had six siblings, an alcoholic, abusive brute of a father and a long-suffering mother who took the abuse and tried to take care of her children. She would grovel under fruit stands looking for food. Harry remembers often being hungry and tortured by delicious smells of food being baked.

He also often had to run from kids who wanted to beat him up. Neighbours stood on their verandahs and yelled abuse at the Jews, ranting about them killing Christ. But the bigotry was mutual. Harry’s parents would spit when they passed the Catholic church. That mutual bigotry, the stench and humiliation of poverty formed the world Harry grew up in.

The 1914 war forged something of a bond between Christians and Jews but after the armistice the bigotry took hold again.

The Invisible Wall is also about a classic Romeo and Juliet love story. When his older sister fell in love with a Christian boy Harry’s mother sat shiva  for her, declaring her dead. And neither the poverty nor the abuse crushed Harry’s spirit. When he was 11 years old he started a newspaper The Gossip. There was one copy and it circulated among the community.

Harry’s memoire is raw, gritty, passionate and poetic. He submitted it to  a whole lot of New York publishing houses who all rejected it. But this time he didn’t destroy the manuscript. He persevered, sending it to the London branch of Random House. Even then it sat on the shelves along with other unsolicited manuscripts for a year until editor Kate Elton read it and couldn’t put it down. She later remarked on how well it was written and that it hardly needed any editing. It was published in 2007.

Harry wasn’t done. He wrote three more books about other aspects of his life, The Dream, The Golden Willow, and What Happened to Rose. The last was published posthumously; Harry died in 2011 at the age of 101. While he was writing he said that these years were the most productive of his life. Is there a Nobel prize for perseverance and gutzpah? 

Faith, courage and persistence. People who hold onto their own ideas about their life and keep on working at what moves them until the day they die are our everyday heroes. Harry Bernstein, thank you. Standing ovation stuff.