There are romance novels, there are history books, there are are adventure stories, and then there is “The Invisible Wall,” a memoir that doesn’t seem to stick to one genre.
The incredibly told narrative of Harry Bernstein’s childhood in England is storytelling masterpiece. Whether he’s describing the suicide of a young World War I veteran or the lack of a soul in his father, Bernstein’s imagery and details leave nothing to be desired.
The story follows young Bernstein as a 5-year-old at the onset of the war. He lives in a small English mill town divided by anti-Ssemitism. The town is literally split down the middle, with Jews living on one side of the street and Christians living on the other.
Being told by a small Jewish boy gives the entire story an interesting perspective on growing up among extreme hatred. He doesn’t understand why him and his brothers are beat up on their way home from school or why the woman who owns the store across the street gives him dirty looks when he comes in to buy candy. He simply knows that being a Jew means being scorned.
At first, Harry understands very little of the reasoning behindof why he does what he does. As a child, he is content to be a follower, to respect the sasbbath and to attend “cheder,” a traditional Jewish school that taught the basics of Judaism and Hebrew. As he grows, he, like many of us, is forced to see different viewpoints that conflict with his beliefs.
As Harry gets older and the war carries on, he begins to see signs of the two sides of his neighborhood crossing over and causing ripples throughout the culture of the small town. His neighbor Sarah is sent to Australia after her parents hear news of her involvement with a “batesema,” or a non-Jjew. For those practicing Hasidic Judaism, marrying outside the faith is often the equivalent of death. This knowledge strikes fear into hearts of many parents around the town.
Without her parents knowledge, Harry’s sister Lily becomes involved with a Christian boy named Arthur. The only person who knows the extent of herthe relationship is Harry, who promises to keep the secret safe from the ears of his parents.
When Arthur is sent to war, Harry’s mother schemes to involve Lily with the young rabbi of the town. Much to her dismay, Lily refuses his interest, waiting for her true love to return. Twisted into a plot based on acceptance and religious conflict, the love story between Arthur and Lily proves to be one of the most intriguing parts of the book. It’s a modern day “Romeo and Juliet,” with an end just as heartbreaking.
It wasn’t until the afterword of the book that I realized Bernstein didn’t publish the “The Invisible Wall” until he was 96 years old. Bernstein said people have questioned how he remembered details from nearly 90 years before. In response, he asked them how he could forget his father’s drunken rages or his sister’s screaming when she was dragged out the door by her hair. The memories were etched permanently into his mind, and now are etched into the minds are thousands of readers across the country.
One story line that appears more quietly than the others is that of Harry’s father. It took me reading between the lines to understand the profound effect that his father’s actions had on him. Born into a destitute family, Harry’s father began working in a slaughter house at 5 years old. By the time he was 12, he was a heavy drinker. In his teenage years, he came home and tormented his family, eventually causing them to move to the countryside one day while he was at work.
There is not one point in the story that he showsportrays any love, or acceptance for his children. Unlike most of the caring, Jewish fathers in the town, his story is one of mental illness. Because he was never shown love, he simply doesn’t have the ability to care. Through his childhood, Harry watches his father drink and gamble away his money, leaving his wife and children hungry. Even as an adult, Harry has little emotion for his father. He was simply a figurehead.
While the book is set the in early 20th century, the ideas that it carries are timelessuniversal. It pits love against religion, a conflict that has been alive since the beginning of time. While the literal war rages in the countries around him, Harry is at war with himself. His culture will not allow him to remain faithful to his family and his religion, forcing him to make incredible choices at a young age.
While readers will find some bias in the story, it’s definitely a read I would suggest. It portrays a culture that was pivotal at the turn of the century. While it’s not to the same extent, I guarantee readers from the area in which we live in will be able draw parallels to their own lives. Sit down and finish this one on a rainy day, I promise you’ll learn something about yourself.
Property of The Utah Statesman