There is no one else alive who remembers Hyman Bernard, or more accurately, Hyman Ber Schwartz. And I ain’t so young either, and although I have not begun to pack my bags, I feel this is a good time to share what I remember. For those readers who like small short stories with happy endings, this is the time to stop.
Papa Hymie (my grandfather) was the youngest of three children. His brother , Uncle Jack, and his sister, Auntie Ida, lived in the British Mandate of Palestine in Raanana, which they founded. Hymie, born in Hamilton Ontario where his father was a ritual slaughterer, never joined Jack and Ida in Palestine. As a matter of fact, my grandfather was not involved in Judaism or Zionism. (Nor was my father, who was a total atheist).
My grandfather was very much like a character from John Steinbeck’s Grapes of Wrath-dirt poor, uneducated, a bit crass. He smoked like a chimney and swore like a trooper. My Dad Phil used to sing me ditties that “I learned from Papa Hymie”.
In the great recession, my grandfather had no money and no food. He left Montreal for a few years to work in the States, so he could send money to my grandmother (Sadie) and my Dad, an only child. My grandfather came back after the recession as a broken man. In the period when Papa was in the States, my father and grandmother lived with 12 other very poor people in one room, sharing a toilet at the end of the hall for the entire floor. Papa felt guilty and useless for no fault of his own.
When I was born, Papa Hymie used to pick me up and walk me in the stroller on rue Draper. I was told that this was the only thing that made him happy, except smoking.
He worked as a menial clerk in a storeroom at Reitmans, a job he obtained through family connections. Papa got cancer when I was very young and they amputated his leg. I was not told about this, but when I came to visit him at the Jewish General or the Royal Vic (I don’t remember), I noticed that there was only one leg under the blanket, and I was sitting where the other leg should have been.
Papa came home from the hospital, coughed all the time; he was in severe pain. His bother Jack came to visit him from Israel in the late 1950s; those were happy moments.
Papa and Uncle Jack (on right) 1956
I have learnt that Papa had sent Jack and Ida blankets and food, in 1956, due to severe shortages in the emerging State of Israel.
I was visiting my grandparents one day on 5350 Victoria (corner of Isabella) when Papa could not take the pain any more. I remember him being carried away on a stretcher, and then learning about death for the first time.
For many years, I resented being asked to “bring me my leg”, but not any more. I named my son after him, Amir Haim. And I myself often pardon myself for being gruff and very down to earth, because it runs in the family.
And I do wish I could have known Papa a bit more.