Review: The Invisible Wall by Harry Bernstein

51K80EHQE8L._SL500_AA240_You might not think 92 is the best age to start writing your first book. At 92, you probably can’t expect to write 3 books (let alone one) or have a bestseller. The odds are against you. But for those who say they are too old to try something new, I’ve got two words for you. Harry. Bernstein.

The Invisible Wall:  A Love Story That Broke Barriers by Harry Bernstein is a memoir of the author’s childhood during WW1, and of the forbidden love between his sister, a Jew, and the boy across the street, a Christian.

Harry grew up on a little street in a tiny Lancashire mill town with his long-suffering mother, his brutal alcoholic father, and his five siblings in the early decades of the 20th century. Jews lived on one side of the street and Christians on the other, in mutual wariness and quiet contempt (on a good day), with an “invisible wall” dividing them. Grinding poverty was the common ground.

“The one thing the two sides of our street had in common was poverty. When the landlord came to collect his shilling rent on Sunday afternoon, there was panic on both sides.”

For a thripennybit, Harry runs notes from a Jewish girl to a Christian boy in an empty ginger beer bottle. Even though he’s a little kid, he knows something’s up, but he really wants that money to buy candy in one of the Christian shops, so he continues to be a messenger for this couple. When the couple is caught kissing, all hell breaks loose and the girl’s family ships her off to Australia.  

The children attend school, under the threat of beatings and taunts by Christian kids every day on their walk home. But school is a refuge, and this is where Harry’s sister Lily shines. She is the favorite of the headmaster, who sees her potential and encourages it. She works hard, reading and studying night and day. When she wins a scholarship to a grammar school her mother is delighted, but in a soul-killing scene her father refuses to let her go, dragging her off by her hair to work in a tailoring shop.

Lily falls in love with Arthur Forshaw, a smart and kind Christian boy who encouraged her in her studies and protected Henry and his siblings on their walks from school. Arthur, along with many other boys on the street, both Jewish and Christian, is shipped off to the war. Some of these boys come back injured, some not at all. Arthur returns, and it is Lily and Arthur’s love that finally breaks down the invisible wall.

bern600THE BOTTOM LINE:  The Invisible Wall is a heartfelt memoir wrapped in a history lesson and sprinkled with tenderness. It reads like a novel because it’s setting is so far removed from modern day. Highly recommended.

MORE ABOUT HARRY BERNSTEIN:  Harry Bernstein lost Ruby, his wife of 67 years, in 2002. He was so distraught he considered suicide, but instead started writing. He followed up The Invisible Wall with 2008’s The Dream, a memoir of his family leaving England and coming to America. This year saw the release of The Golden Willow, the story of his life with Ruby, a romance that lasted 70 years.

Book Review: Sarah’s Key by Tatiana de Rosnay

9780312370848 Sarah’s Key by Tatiana de Rosnay is a brilliant and beautiful novel about a horrific and under-reported event that took place during WWII, the Vel’d’Hiv’ roundup of more than 13,000 French Jews in Paris by the French police. Told alternately from Sarah’s point of view in 1942 and that of Julia Jarmond, a modern day American journalist researching the event for it’s 60th anniversary, Ms. de Rosnay seamlessly weaves the two stories together.

At 10, “the girl” has heard her parents whispering anxiously about roundups and camps and arrests, but they haven’t told her anything directly. When the French police come in the middle of the night demanding “Open up! Police! Now!”, she does not understand. She sees it is not the Nazis coming for them and believes they will straighten it all out and come home in a few hours. Her 4 year old brother, terrified, climbs into his hiding place in a long cupboard and the girl, thinking she is protecting him, locks him in and pockets the key, promising him she’ll be back soon. The rest of the family is taken away as neighbors watch, some mocking them, a few standing up for them and demanding to know why.

The girl and her family are taken with thousands of others, mostly women and children, to the Velodrome d’Hiver, an indoor cycle track in Paris, as a holding place before boarding buses for concentration camps hours away. They are kept there for days without food, toilet facilities, medical care, or blankets in overcrowded and inhumane conditions before being paraded through town and onto buses- the same town buses they had used to go to school and to the market- and driven away to camps as the Parisians watched. At the camps, first the men are separated from their families. Piece by piece their lives are chipped away. Weeks later, in a gut wrenching scene, the women are brutally and forcibly separated from their children. The adults are taken to Auschwitz and the children, even babies and toddlers, are left to fend for themselves. All this time the girl is consumed with guilt and fear for her brother, who she believes is still locked in the cupboard. She vows to get back to him.

Sarah is called “the girl” in the book until page 132, when she finally begins to feel safe and treated as a person again. I was riveted by Sarah’s chapters, but not as much by Julia’s, the American journalist, although I think interweaving the two was a very effective way to tell this story. We are allowed to see the Parisian’s modern day apathy, their lack of emotion or knowledge of events that took place right in their own city. Julia is stunned to discover a personal connection to the Vel’d’Hiv’ roundup. As she unravels family secrets and her story begins to intersect with Sarah’s, her marriage starts to disintegrate. Told in parallel, I found myself racing through Julia’s parts to get back to Sarah. When halfway through the book Sarah’s chapters abruptly end, I was distressed and frustrated, wanting to get back to her story. What had happened to Sarah? It took the rest of the book to find out.

This book is so compelling and I highly recommend it. I love when historical fiction teaches us something new, and this tragic event in Paris was something I’d never heard about. The ending seems a little too perfect and coincidental, but I loved it, and I’ve heard the movie rights have been optioned. I can’t wait to see this story on the big screen.

Our book club was supposed to discuss the book two weeks ago but something came up for our hostess, so we’ll be discussing it tomorrow. I’ll do a book club wrap-up post here in a few days.

Check out my book club’s Q & A with Tatiana de Rosnay HERE.

Discussion questions for Sarah’s Key can be found HERE.

If you’re interested in this subject you might also like The Boy In the Striped Pajamas, reviewed HERE.