A chapter ended and a book was closed on Oct. 29 when Uncle Bernie passed away at the age of 97. The last of my grandfather’s 12 siblings, Bernie Ehrlich was born right here in Washington on Dec. 28, 1919. He grew up in old Southwest, on 4½ Street. To me he was not some far-away relative, but someone I worked with for many years in the Northeast Market, enabling us to have a close and loving relationship that spanned many decades.
To me, Bernie Ehrlich was always Uncle Bernie, the fighting Marine. Enlisting in the Marine Corps during World War II, he rose to the rank of master sergeant. He was one of the oldest living Marine veterans of the war, and no one was ever prouder of being a Marine than Uncle Bernie. It defined his personality.
He loved and embraced life with joy and humor. He laughed at every single joke I ever told him, whether in English or in Yiddish. Our relationship transcended work and later grew stronger and more intense in the years after I lost my parents, of blessed memory. Then Bernie became, for me, the last remnant of a world that had slipped away all too soon. I treasured our conversations, which occurred regularly until the end of his life. Bernie treasured his family, more than anyone I have ever seen. He worshipped his parents, and when they were gone, he transferred that love and caring to his many siblings, as well as his own family. His wife, children, grandchildren, and great grandchildren all benefitted greatly from Bernie’s love and attention. It is no wonder that G-d, in his wisdom, took Bernie last of all his siblings, his mission completed perfectly.
I would like to relate two stories about Bernie in tribute to him. In both cases, I was privileged to be involved with him and learn from his example.
The first occurred when Bernie was called to help a family member. In a family as large as the Ehrlich’s, with 11 children living to adulthood, and many nieces, nephews, and cousins, it was inevitable that some would fall through the cracks. And so it was with one of Bernie’s nieces, long estranged from the family, who was critically ill. In her despair, she called Bernie, knowing that was the one call that would surely be answered. As it turned out, soon after, she passed away, and Bernie needed help to get her properly buried. To my great honor, he called me, and together we figured it out. I wasn’t able to attend the burial because of work commitments, so on a frigid winter morning in Southeast Washington, Bernie stood alone as she was buried in a Jewish cemetery, with honor and dignity. She was family, and Bernie would have it no other way.
The second incident took place a few years before. For many years, I would take Bernie to the old Beth Sholom Congregation Cemetery in Capitol Heights, Maryland, to visit the graves of family members before the High Holidays. Most of the Ehrlich family members are buried there. To be there, I think, made Bernie a little nervous. He would talk a mile a minute, telling stories about the family and thanking me over and over again for something that I assured him needed no thanks.
He was always concerned that we made sure to visit the grave of his brother Abraham, who had died back in 1927, when he was only 14 years old. One year, as we walked over to the grave, the running conversation stopped and Bernie grew silent. I actually turned around to make sure he was still there! His eyes were moist and he was staring, far off into memory.
After what seemed to me to be forever, he finally spoke. “I still remember the screaming, boy,” he said.
“What screaming, Bernie?” I asked.
“How my mother screamed when they put that boy in the ground.” It still seared him, over 70 years later.
We put our arms around each other and walked away. I knew then, and I say now in tribute to him, that there was a lot more to Uncle Bernie than met the eye. He was a deeply loving and caring person. I was privileged to learn from his example.
Bernie was blessed with a long and healthy life. G-d was with Bernie always. He granted him an extraordinarily long life, protected him during time of war and preserved him in good health until the end. He suffered from no major illnesses, drove a car at 97, and when the time came for him to leave the world he did so peacefully, with three generations of his family at his side. By every measure, Uncle Bernie had a great run. And though the book of that generation is closed, his love and example will live on in my heart always. Yehi Zichro Boruch. May his memory always be for a blessing.
NEXT TIME: TWO REELS FOUR
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By Larry Shor