The Eulogizer: Centenarian memoirist Harry Bernstein, Sammy Ofer

JERUSALEM (JTA) — The Eulogizer is a new column (soon-to-be blog) that highlights the life accomplishments of famous and not-so-famous Jews who have passed away recently. Learn about their achievements, honor their memories and celebrate Jewish lives well lived with The Eulogizer. Write to the Eulogizer at eulogizer@jta.org. Read previous columns here.

Harry Bernstein, 101, acclaimed memoirist

In the months after his wife of more than 67 years died, Harry Bernstein turned his elderly typewriter on a childhood “blighted by squalor, abuse and anti-Semitism in the slums” of a Manchester, England, neighborhood; four years later, in 2007, he published at age 96 a “heart-wrenching memoir… (which) evoked in spare, restrained prose that brilliantly illuminates a time, a place and a family struggling valiantly to beat impossible odds.” Bernstein, a film script reader who passed on "Gone With the Wind," died June 3 at 101.

Bernstein’s memoir, “The Invisible Wall” caused “a literary stir” when it was published after being plucked out of the “slush” pile at a London publishing house.

The New York Times said the book’s late-Victorian-era setting, “beautifully rendered, recalls early D. H. Lawrence, with mill hands trudging off to work early in the morning, their iron-shod clogs raising sparks on the cobblestones. In Mr. Bernstein’s hands, the small events of family life and the daily dramas on the street take on a shimmering, timeless quality.”

The story’s bitter characters – an abusive father, illiterate mother, impoverished family, sister ostracized for loving a Christian – lived difficult lives made harsher by anti-Semitism and an almost unbroachable divide between Jews and non-Jews.

Bernstein continued to tell of his life in the 2008 book “The Dream,” which followed his family’s move to Chicago and his struggles as a writer, and then, “The Golden Willow: The Story of a Lifetime of Love,” the story of his 67-year marriage to his wife, Ruby.

“The first 25 years of my life are something I would rather forget, but the contrary has taken place,” he said in 2007. “The older I get the more alive those years have become.”

Bernstein, one of seven children, was born in Stockport, England, to parents who had emigrated from Poland. He was raised Orthodox, but attended an Anglican school. He failed to sell early manuscripts to American publishers but worked as a film script reader for MGM. He recommended “The Grapes of Wrath,” but passed on “Gone With the Wind,” which cost him his job. He published short stories sporadically, but did not sit down to write his memoir until 2003, after his wife died.

In 2008, at the age of 98, he won a Guggenheim Fellowship.

More on Israeli billionaire Sammy Ofer

In the wake of continuing controversy over Sammy Ofer, about whom the Eulogizer wrote on Monday, Haaretz columnist Nehemia Shtrasler, one of Israel’s most influential economics writers, offered a spirited defense of Ofer that focused on the mean-spiritedness envy many Israelis have toward the rich and successful, in a column titled, “Israel needs entrepreneurs like Sammy Ofer”:

“The death of Sammy Ofer, one of the richest people in Israel, forces all of us to do some soul-searching. Only a few days ago, when the Iran oil tanker affair exploded, Ofer was labeled nothing less than a traitor who was willing to trade with the Iranians for monetary gain. Even before anyone knew what had really happened there. After all, it’s such fun to spill the blood of a "tycoon."

“If you ask the average Israeli how Ofer acquired his fortune, he will tell you confidently that Ofer purchased the Israel Corporation from the government for a song, and thereby became a very rich man. Because everything is corrupt….But the truth is that Ofer made his fortune abroad, and only afterward returned to Israel in order to invest the profits here.”
 

NEXT STORY