Bernie was mischievous and had trouble focusing in school, so why is he remembered as a sentimentalist and an exceptional husband and father?
Bernard Harold Blieden
Bernie was born on June 12, 1914, to Gussie Abramowitz and Harvey Blieden. He was the middle child and had an older brother, Arthur, and eventually a younger sister, Mildred. (You can read more about them by clicking on the Sibling menu above.)
His Hebrew name is Dov Hillel so he was probably named for his paternal great-grandfather, Ber, and for his maternal great-uncle, Hillel Smarkowitz.
When he was born his family lived at lived at 201 Stockton Street in Brooklyn in a three bedroom tenement for which they paid $20 a month rent. In their apartment, they had the conveniences of the day, such as a coal stove, an ice box, and indoor plumbing.
Sometime after the 1915 New York State Census, the family moved to 150 Tompkins Ave in the Bedford-Stuyvesant neighborhood in Brooklyn, NY. At that time, Bedford-Stuyvesant was known for its Victorian-style row houses, but Tompkins Ave. was also known for it’s red brick tenement buildings. In the 1920 Federal Census, there were a bunch of families listed at 150 Tompkins Ave. so the building probably was a tenement building.
At some point after the 1925 New York State Census, but before the 1930 Federal Census, the family had moved to 1165 St. John’s Place in the Crown Heights section of Brooklyn.
Bernie was a rascal. As a matter of fact, Gussie asked Mildred to keep a special eye on him so he would not get into trouble or get lost. Every day before they went out to play, Mildred would have to repeat in Yiddish:
I have to see that my brother Bernie won’t go in the gutter, on the roof, in the dark basement or run away with the gypsies!
One of the only toys the children had was a button on a string. They would pull the string in and out, in and out, and the button would spin around. The children spoke in Yiddish. They learned English only after starting school.
Like all children, the Bliedens sometimes got into mischief. One day they saw a photographer in the street taking pictures. Mildred convinced the others to have their picture taken. Grandma Gussie, of course, bought the photos even though they had little extra money and Bernie got the spanking for his “idea”!
At about age 12, Bernie went to work. He was a super salesman even way back then. His first job was selling cement doorstops. With his first earned money, he bought presents for everyone in his family, everyone but himself, that is. There were new kitchen curtains for his mother, and for his sister, Mildred, her first pair of real silk stockings. The Great Depression was hard on Harvey Blieden’s family. They had little money before and now things were even harder. The children were dressed in hand-me-down clothes. Bernie worked many odd jobs to contribute to the family income.
At about age 17, Bernie left his parents a note and hoboed around the country for about one year. His decision not to finish high school, he regretted his whole life. During his year of travelling, he spent time with his Uncle Abe Blieden in Missouri, and his cousin Henry Blumberg in Columbus, Ohio. (The Blumberg’s were Hannah Blieden’s sister’s children.)
In the early 1930’s his father suffered a massive heart attack and was forced to stay at home for two years. With Arthur now in medical school, Bernie continued taking odd jobs to help out his family. He became manager of the Globe Theatre Movie House owned by the Brandt Co. He even obtained a motion picture operator’s license. He desired to be an entertainer and during his year of travelling he sometimes worked for the Ziegfeld Follies. He worked for a candy manufacturer, and one summer he ran a liquor store with his brother.
In 1937, Bernard Blieden met May Wosnitzer on a blind date. Bernie knew May’s cousin’s husband and he fixed them up. (Check out the How They Met section, for more about their dating years.
In the 1940 Census, the family had moved again. This time they were living at 1307 Union Street in the Crown Heights section of Brooklyn. There was a lodger living with them probably to help pay the rent. Bernie, now 26 years old was working as a clerk in a novelty store.
By 1942, his family was living at 32 Lenox Road in Brooklyn. in the Flatbush section. This is the building I remember visiting my grandmother in.
World War II had started and Bernie enlisted in the Army. (Read the WWII section to learn more about what his career in the Army Air Force was like.) Within a month after Bernie returned from the war, May, now 27, and Bernie, now 31, were finally married, ten years after they first met.
He went to work for his father-in-law, Irving Wosnitzer, in his hat business, the I. Watson Hat company. However, that only lasted a short time since May’s mother, Minnie, was very against him being there. Was it because she was still bitter about their divorce, or was it because she was afraid that Bernie might learn that May had been adopted? That was a well-kept family secret.
(Mr. and Mrs. Bernard Blieden)
In 1947, his first child, Tara, was born. That year Bernie also launched his own business, Twinkle Town Togs, which manufactured little girls’ skirts. His business shared a loft with the people who were just beginning John’s Bargain Store.
After Tara was born, Bernie and May recieved a postcard from Bernie’s Uncle Max Abramowitz, his mother’s brother. Bernie had always been close to Max. Max was vacationing in Florida but wanted to send his congratulations.
Bernie worked long hours at his business, plus attended night school classes. He always regretted not finishing school.
On April 20, 1951, the first night of Passover, Bernie’s second child, a son, Ira, was born. May barely made it out of a taxicab when the baby arrived. It seems she did not want to go to the hospital without Bernie and he got stuck in traffic coming from his office! At that time, they were still living with May’s mother, Minnie, in her two-bedroom apartment in Bensonhurst, Brooklyn, NY.
Even with a new baby, May and Bernie continued the family Sunday outings. Every weekend they went to parks, the zoo, museums, botanical gardens, or just for rides in the country. Coming home they always sang songs in the new car, a black Desoto.
Soon afterwards, Bernie moved his family to their own two-bedroom apartment in the Alley Pond Garden Apartments in Queens, NY.
Bernie’s business partner was Bob Glass. We would frequently have picnics with him and his wife.
Bernie’s business was located Garment Center in New York City which was always exciting to visit. The pushcarts loaded with clothes moved rapidly in and out of trucks and buildings. You had to be very careful so they would not knock you down. Everyone walked so fast! Since he was strictly kosher both in and out of the house, whenever he took his visiting children out for lunch, it was always a grilled cheese or cream cheese and olive sandwich with an egg cream to drink, naturally!
The children loved visiting their father’s office and got very special treatment, of course, being the boss’ daughter! The secretaries would take us out to lunch and give us special jobs to do like stuffing envelopes or putting tags on skirts. Bernie would use his shy daughter, Tara, as his model when salesmen came to the showroom. It was not her favorite thing to do! One summer, his high school nephew, Harvey, worked for him, too.
Education was always important to Bernie. A high school boy named Joey used to sweep up the office after school. He really liked Bernie and wanted to quit school to work for him full-time. My father told him if he ever quit school he would fire him immediately. For years afterwards, Joey continued to visit. He eventually married and became a millionaire and was always thankful that Bernie did not let him drop out of school.
On December 23, 1953, Bernie’s third child, a daughter, Avra, was born.
Bernie with Ira, Avra, and Tara in Alley Pond Park
When Avra was a few years, old, Bernie moved the family to Teaneck, NJ, a few blocks from his brother Arthur’s home.
The “new” house (it was seven years old) at 260 Merrison Street, Teaneck, was a cape. It looked small on the outside but actually had very large rooms. There were two bedrooms and a bathroom on the main level, and two bedrooms and a bathroom upstairs. There was a very large unfinished basement. Bernie had 3/4ths of it finished in knotty pine paneling. After the paneling was installed, he discovered the basement was wet. With every rainstorm, it had water up to his knees. It cost a lot of money and aggravation to have that fixed.
Bernie’s 4th child, a daughter, Mavra, was born May 22, 1959, six weeks early, and weighing 4 lbs. 12 oz. When she was born, his other 3 children had the chicken pox. While the new baby stayed in the incubator, the other 3 went to stay with Lois and Arthur who lived just a few blocks away.
Bernie was very generous and if we had a birthday party to go to, he always brought home a skirt as a gift for the girl. Once he even brought home matching outfits for his 2 daughters, 3 nieces and for his sister-in-law. His 3rd daughter was not yet born.
Around this time, Bernie sold his business. Among other reasons, it was getting increasingly more difficult to compete with foreign imports. He then worked for various children’s clothing manufacturers as a salesman and sometimes even as a designer.
On Columbus Day 1960, May entered the hospital. Lois, his sister-in-law, was with Bernie when he heard the unbelievable diagnosis: cancer of the colon. She was in and out of the hospital throughout the winter and spring. At the end, May was in the hospital for 7 weeks without coming home and her children were not allowed to see her during that time period.
At the end of July, 1961, May passed away in the early morning while Bernie was enroute to the hospital. His brother-in-law, Manny Rich, was with her as the Riches’ lived nearby and could get there quickly. Bernie came home accompanied by his sister, Mildred, who stayed with us the rest of that week. It was the first time anyone ever saw Bernie cry. The first thing he did was to take his 4 children into his arms and promise us we’d always stay together no matter what. It was a promise he more than lived up to.
In about 1964, Bernie updated his will making his brother, Arthur, and his friend Abe Bersohn, his executors. Although he had planned to update again in 1973, his lawyer was on vacation when he called, and by the time he returned, it was too late to be revised. His brother ended up with the sole responsibility since he friend felt he was too old to take on the responsibility when it was time to do so.
Bernie quit high school to go to work to help out his family. Years later, Bernie was ashamed about his decision – something he never discussed and very few people knew about. Although he was very well-read and could speak intelligently on any subject, he felt inferior because he did not have an official college degree. He attended New York University and City College in New York, plus art school but he never matriculated. After May died, he took all kinds of adult education classes from fashion design to drama to Hebrew lessons. He often said that if the instructors would just let him stand up in class he would do much better. Sitting down after a long day of work just made him fall asleep! As a matter of fact, he often fell asleep on the bus coming home from work. He would miss his stop and would call his children to pick him up in some other town.
After a few years, Bernie never went anywhere except to work and to Temple. The rest of the time he was home with his kids. Then one year he started staying out one night a week. His kids began to wonder,” where could he be going, what was he doing?” and they began to worry, So finally they confronted him and he confessed — He had been taking acting lessons! It turned out Bernie always wanted to be an actor!
When Tara, his oldest daughter was a freshman in college, he suffered his first heart attack. He had at least 3 other major ones in the coming years in addition to some other ailments.
In 1971, he flew our to Indiana to attend the wedding of his nephew, Harvey Rich, to Pamela Joliquer. Harvey was his sister’s son. The family was always supportive of each other and Bernie’s Aunt Reve, and his brother Arthur and Arthur’s wife, Lois, also attended the wedding.
Some favorite family memories of the Teaneck house and Bernie include:
- The fresh bagels and lox Bernie bought on Sunday mornings
- Buying fresh fruit with Bernie. He went to every store in town to get the best buy and always knew how to pick out the tastiest fruit by squeezing, smelling, thumping, etc.!
- How Bernie loved to sing, dance, and “play the piano”, always his own concoctions since he could not read music. If we ever stumbled across an empty stage he would always perform for us. For a while, his daughter, Avra, gave him piano lessons.
- How Bernie went out every night to buy his cigarettes and newspaper and come home to fall asleep in front of the TV set. As far as his cigarettes were concerned, his children were very upset about his smoking. The doctors wanted him to stop so they were always yelling at him or hiding his cigarettes. He, however, would get equally mad at them. The kids never knew which was worse for his health, the cigarettes or his temper over not having them. It was a constant on-going war between them and him.
- How his brother, Arthur, picked up Bernie to drive him to work every day. It was always comforting to know that we would see our uncle in the mornings. If we did not feel well, he would always tell us what to buy or which doctor to see since he was an orthopedic surgeon.
- His green eyes, and left-handed penmanship slant
In the Spring of 1973, Bernie’s son, Ira, graduated from Carnegie-Mellon University in Pittsburg, PA. Bernie and his other 3 children drove out there together to attend the ceremonies. His sister, Mildred, and sister-in-law, Lois, flew out there, too. It proved to be the last time they were all together.
Soon after that, he was rushed into surgery for an emergency colostomy. He came of the surgery fine, but was kept in the Intensive Care Unit because of his previous heart condition. He would need 2 other surgeries to reverse the colostomy.
Because the doctors felt his heart was stronger than ever and that he was a good candidate for one of the new heart operations, they decided to perform two of his colostomy operations at the same time. This time he was not placed in the Intensive Care Unit. The day he was released from the hospital, his cousins Mickey and Alan Spira, from PA, came to visit him. He insisted on driving over to visit his Aunt Reeve in her Senior Citizens Home because he had not seen her most of the summer and he worried that she did not have enough company. That night, Bernie had a stroke in the kitchen.
He was still in a coma when Tara got to Englewood Hospital from CT the next day. By Wednesday, he was still comatose and his son, Ira, was called to come home from college. On Wednesday night, we were all – his children, his brother and sister and their families – were all by his bedside. The hospital guard came up and asked us to leave. It was against regulations to have so many people on the floor. His brother, Arthur, a doctor himself, started screaming and cursing at the guard. We had not been making any noise. The regulations seemed senseless; nevertheless, we were all pushed into the elevator and forced to leave. Aunt Mildred still had her hospital pass and being as thoughtful as she always was, gave it to Tara to go back up to sit with her father for a minute. Avra had put up a big sign and had put a plant near our father’s bed so when he awoke he would see something cheerful. We arranged for a private nurse to spend the night with him. Visiting hours were over and we silently went home.
In the middle of the night Pop died. It was Rosh Hashanah 1973. He was 59 years old.
Grandma Gussie may have worried because her Bernie was apt to be mischievous as a child, but as a man, he was shy and gentle. Everyone liked him and he had looked after everyone. At his funeral there was not an empty seat in the funeral parlor. Everyone, from friends and neighbors to the butcher and the tailor, and the people who ran the Royal Delicatessen on Cedar Lane in Teaneck paid a Shiva call. It amazed and deeply touched me to see all the people who came to pay their respects to this ordinary, yet extraordinary man.
Bernie had been a sentimentalist. This showed up in his love of poetry and the English language and in his constant picture taking. Aunt Mildred was quite upset to discover what was in the attic after he died: most of his Uncle Max’s and his mother’s Gussie’s things were still there. Bernie had promised his sister, Mildred, he would go through them, but in actuality he never did. When we had to pack up the house, we even had to pack up our mother’s apron. It was still hanging on the same hook on the inside of the door to the basement stairs even after all these years.
Our father rarely praised us. He always wanted us to do better, but he was always proud of what we had accomplished. As a friend and as a father we have nothing but praise for him. He kept us together, gave us the best of everything he could afford, and certainly gave us all of his love:
Bernard Harold Blieden
Father, Husband, Brother
Gentle, Loving, Kind
A Truly Unique Man
He is buried in the Blieden family plot in Cedar Park Cemetery, Carmel Section, Lot 635, in Paramus, NJ.
His cousin Jud Bricker’s wife, Ruth, had this to say about Bernie:
Just a few notes about your dad. When Jud was young, he remembers Bernie always taking the time to play with him–just being very friendly all the time. He was a FAVORITE RELATIVE!
He remembers him saying that he was sorry he never went further in school.
Jud remembers Bernie walking into a shoe store and applied for a job. They asked him if he had experience and he said he did, even though he hadn’t . He did keep the job for awhile.
He was very close to his Uncle Max–the relationship to the family Jud is not sure of.
Bernie read the obituaries every day without fail–he got pleasure out of outliving people.
He was always cheerful and upbeat.
Bernie would have Thanksgiving often at his house in Teaneck and invite the family. We would bring Jud’s mom. After dinner Tara would get out her accordian and we would all listen to her play– do you remember Tara?
Bernie would visit Jud’s mom almost every week after Jud’s dad died and was extremely faithful to this task, especially when she lived in Rockland County.
He was a wonderful man.