Born in Poland in 1920, Bernstein completed his art studies in the Academy of Vilna in 1939. His family was wiped out in the Holocaust, but he survived the war and lived in Russia until 1947, when he immigrated to Palestine as part of the "illegal immigration" (aliyah bet). He was caught and spent time in a detention camp in Cyprus.
Bernstein's artistic path in Israel recalls that of other painters who reflected their memories of small Jewish Diaspora towns, or shtetls. At a certain stage, these artists were rejected by the local art scene. In the 1950s, '60s and '70s, the subject aroused public interest and recognition. In 1948, Bernstein participated in a group exhibit in the Tel Aviv Museum of Art, and in 1949 in a group exhibit at Artists' House (then known as the Artists' Pavilion). In 1954, he participated in another exhibition - of young artists - in the Tel Aviv Museum. In 1962, he had a solo exhibition at the Tel Aviv Museum, another in 1967 at the Haifa Museum, and a retrospective in 1973 in the Ein Harod Museum of Art. Interspersed among these events were shows at the Katz and Chemerinsky Galleries in Tel Aviv.
A Bernstein exhibit, which included paintings of the shtetl, was shown in 1998 at the international theater festival in Parma, Italy. In 1999, he was awarded a prize by the Massuah Institute for the Study of the Holocaust, for his "documentation of the world that vanished at the beginning of his career."
His paintings appeared on the walls of the defunct Kassit cafe in Tel Aviv, and in the Kiton restaurant - "places in which he ate and gave paintings," says gallery owner Zaki Rosenfeld, whose father, Eliezer Rosenfeld, worked with Bernstein.
Bernstein's paintings always touched on memories of the Jewish town he was forced to leave at a young age. They were a constant reminder of the destruction of European Jewry, but also expressed great yearning. Bernstein wrote in the catalogue of the 1973 exhibition in Ein Harod: "In this exhibition, I once again bring you the experiences and dreams of my longed-for past, because for me it is an enchanted garden which I walk as if intoxicated by its fragrances and its beauty, and from which I draw the inspiration for my work."
"Moshe was one of those young artists who gave expression to a different kind of experience in that period," says Galia Bar-Or, curator and director of the Ein Harod Museum of Art. "He is perceived as the kind of Jewish artist that gives sentimental expression to the memory of a Jewish culture that is gone forever. He also illustrated books of Yiddish poetry. He did the typography by hand, in black ink; and in his decorations around the sides there appeared that same figure of a Jewish girl, with a black braid and big eyes, and the houses of the town."
At a certain stage he began to concentrate increasingly on graphic art. Among others, he illustrated Israel Ch. Biletzky's book, "A Jewish Shtetl," which was published in 1986.
"My father, who also came from the shtetl, worked with him for years, and loved his work," says Zaki Rosenfeld about Bernstein. "He belonged to that same vanishing group of artists who represented and preserved the cultural fabric from which they themselves came. When I turned the gallery into a gallery of contemporary art, he would walk down Dizengoff Street, look at the gallery, spit on the ground, make sure I had seen him, and continue on his way. There is no doubt that the face of this little man, and what he represented, will be missed on the Tel Aviv landscape."