During a recent It’s Monday! What Are You Reading? Discussion, my cousin mentioned that she was reading a memoir called The Invisible Wall by Harry Bernstein and was really enjoying it. I told her I love memoirs but hadn’t heard of this one. A week later, I was pleased and surprised to receive a package in the mail from her, containing both this memoir and its sequel! My library book group was discussing memoirs the next week, so her timing was perfect, and I started it right away. I loved every page and can’t wait to read the sequel.
Harry Bernstein’s fascinating memoir is about the first twelve years of his life, spent in a small mill town in England in the 1910’s with his mother, father, and siblings. Harry’s father earns some money as a tailor but spends it all on alcohol. He is silent and sullen or angry during the rare times he is at home. Their home life is difficult and they are very poor, but Harry’s mother works hard to hold things together for the family.
This memoir isn’t just about Harry’s family, though. It’s also about the street he lived on and all of his neighbors. The invisible wall of the title runs right down the center of their cobblestone street, with Christian families on one side of the street and Jewish families, including Harry’s, on the other. The Jewish fathers all worked in the local tailor shops, and the Christian men all worked in the mill. They were friendly toward one another and helped each other when tragedy struck, but otherwise the families each stayed on their own side of the street.
Life continues that way until Harry discovers that his sister is in love with a Christian boy. The consequences are unthinkable; according to his mother, if a Jewish girl marries a Christian, she will be dead to the family. Being close to his sister and knowing the secret, Harry is in the middle, struggling between wanting his sister to be happy and knowing his mother’s strict moral code. World War I brings additional challenges, as many of the boys on both sides of the street go to war.
The memoir is engaging from the first page to the last. Harry recalls his childhood with a warm voice, and the details of his life and the mores of the era are fascinating. Parts of his story reminded me of Angela's Ashes, particularly the details of being a young child amidst so much poverty in the UK. Incredibly, Harry began writing this memoir when he was 93 years old! He went on to write two more, and I can’t wait to read the next one, The Dream.