Mary Bernstein Stout is the keeper of the flame, the treasured memory of her brother who died in World War II. Because she is stalked by old age and poor health, the flame is flickering.
Memorial Day is a time of special meaning to her, as it is for all families with a member who has given, in the words of Abraham Lincoln, “the last full measure of devotion.”
Mary was 14 when her brother Solomon Bernstein, 22, died on Aug. 6, 1944, after his U.S. Army Air Corps B-17 “Flying Fortress” was shot down after a raid on a German aircraft factory. Five crew members bailed out, four others died in the crash.
The remains of Staff Sgt. Bernstein, the tail gunner and crew chief, and those of Staff Sgt. Chester Bartoszewicz, the radio operator, were so entwined that each man’s casket contained body parts of the other. The two first were buried in Belgium, then repatriated in 1950 to Beverly National Cemetery in Burlington County.
Although the Bernsteins had lived in the Philly area, the family moved to Florida by the time Sol entered high school, and Bartoszewicz was from Pittsburgh, so the choice of New Jersey for their last resting place is a mystery. Beverly Cemetery Administration Serviceman Greg Whitney tells me the records do not explain why that cemetery was selected.
That location is a hardship on Mary, who now lives in a suburb of Orlando. She is 88, has had two strokes, and is unable to travel to her brother’s grave. “I don’t even have money to pay for flowers,” she tells me in a soft voice over the phone. Her sons Stephen and Richard know of the uncle they never met, but lacking a real connection, they cannot be the ones to keep the flame burning.
The two airmen were buried in separate caskets in Beverly, one atop the other, with a single headstone engraved with their names and a cross. Over the decades the marble decayed, and Mary requested that it be replaced with a new one to keep her brother’s memory fresh, along with that of his comrade-in-arms.
She made one other request that proved momentous: In addition to the cross for the Catholic Bartoszewicz, she asked that a Star of David be added for the Jewish Bernstein. The cemetery created a tombstone that military authorities agree is unique, showing the names of the dead heroes, along with symbols of their faiths. The new marker was placed in 1994, 50 years after their plane crashed in Germany.
The Bernstein family lived for a few years in Upper Darby and in Atlantic City before settling in Miami Beach, where the father, Julius Bernstein, managed hotels. Mary says her older brother was blond and blue-eyed, popular at Miami Beach High School, where he played French horn in the marching band.
Her brother spent a few days with the family in May 1943, but on the day he left to return to the war, Mary was visiting a friend and never got to say goodbye, a lapse that haunts her.
She obtained Air Force records detailing her brother’s last mission. She found and talked to two of the five survivors of that flight. Although she tried mightily, calling people in Pittsburgh named Bartoszewicz, she never found anyone who knew Chester. She says it makes her sad that no one is remembering him.
But that is not true: She is remembering Chester, along with Sol — a Catholic and a Jew who are in the embrace of eternity.
They also are remembered by David Lee Preston, who is now my boss, but who as an Inquirer columnist discovered the tombstone in 1994 and wrote about it.
Almost every year in the 24 years since, Preston has done what Mary cannot, and laid flowers at the tombstone. This year, on Saturday, I joined him.
From the sunshine-bathed silence of the cemetery, we called Mary on cellphone and showed her the tombstone and flowers via FaceTime. She was grateful, and I was choking up.
Mary’s flame is flickering, but it still burns.