Street battles recalled from 90 years ago

By John Nathan, October 10, 2008

They do say that long-term memory is stronger than short-term memory. But you can't help wondering whether it is possible for a man of 97 to have total recall about his early childhood, as in Harry Bernstein's first memoir, or even his adolescence, remembered in his second.

Ninety-three years ago, Bernstein was living in a Lancashire mill town, the youngest member of an Orthodox Jewish family of five children. Living in the shadows of the First World War, his long-suffering Polish mother was married to a dissolute who squandered most of his meagre earnings on drink. But The Invisible Wall is not about poverty (though it was grinding) or hope (though it was abiding) but about the culture clash between those who lived on Harry's side of the street, the Jews, and those who lived opposite, the Christians.

Each viewed the other with a great deal more suspicion than affection. But, as Bernstein points out, compared to the pogroms from which his parents' generation fled, the odd jibe and the occasional punch on the way home from school came almost as a relief.

There were times when the "invisible wall" was breached. When a Jewish family needed a "goy" to light fires on Shabbat, or when Harry's sister Lily fell in secret love with Arthur who lived on the other side. Or when war broke out and Christians flocked across the street to the Jews - and vice versa - when news reached them all that a son had been killed in action.

But it is the behaviour of those within Bernstein's family that provides the drama, nowhere more so than when Lily's chance to go to grammar school was brutally curtailed by her father, a mean and mysterious figure brooding on the fringes of the family both in England and in America - the location of Bernstein's follow-up, The Dream.

This is an interesting account of a family coping with the demands of immigration, but it lacks the structure, originality and tension provided by the invisible wall in the first.

Still, the imagery conjured by Bernstein's straightforward prose in both books is always convincing - the clattering of clogs on cobbles; the first, awestruck impressions of the metropolis of Chicago; and the shocking truth about how his Polish-born American grandfather made a living. The Dream will work best as a companion piece to the The Invisible Wall. No doubt the publishers are considering a double volume edition.

John Nathan is the JC's theatre critic

Last updated: 3:17pm, February 18 2011