The memoir of a Jewish bookseller on a harrowing fight for survival across Nazi-occupied Europe.
In 1921, Françoise Frenkel–a Jewish woman from Poland–fulfills a dream. She opens La Maison du Livre, Berlin’s first French bookshop, attracting artists and diplomats, celebrities and poets. The shop becomes a haven for intellectual exchange as Nazi ideology begins to poison the culturally rich city. In 1935, the scene continues to darken. First come the new bureaucratic hurdles, followed by frequent police visits and book confiscations.
Françoise’s dream finally shatters on Kristallnacht in November 1938, as hundreds of Jewish shops and businesses are destroyed. La Maison du Livre is miraculously spared, but fear of persecution eventually forces Françoise on a desperate, lonely flight to Paris. When the city is bombed, she seeks refuge across southern France, witnessing countless horrors: children torn from their parents, mothers throwing themselves under buses. Secreted away from one safe house to the next, Françoise survives at the heroic hands of strangers risking their lives to protect her.
Published quietly in 1945, then rediscovered nearly sixty years later in an attic.
“One could write volumes about the courage, the generosity, the fearlessness of those families who offered assistance to fugitives in every ‘departement’ [spelled this way in the book] and even in Occupied France, putting their lives at risk.” – Francoise Frenkel, A Bookshop in Berlin
There are many intriguing things about the life of Francoise Frenkel and the mystery surrounding her little Bookshop in Berlin–enough to spur on lively conversation and many questions at my most recent book club. Why didn’t she mention her husband who co-owned the bookstore with her (according to historic records), when she effectively captured the smallest details about total strangers? What happened to the bookstore after she escaped to Switzerland? Did she open another? These types of questions may never be answered as Franciose Frenkel seems to be lost to history, save this little book that was discovered in an attic, serving as only a small peek into the life of this stoic woman during WWII.
I don’t think there are many WWII books that I don’t enjoy reading–fiction or otherwise–because these people are my heroes. Their stories stick with me, and Ms. Frenkel’s story likely will too. I related to her love of books, the desire to connect with her bookshop customers and offer personalized recommendations, and I felt the devastation through her penned words as she described leaving her store during the war. However, I–and the ladies in my book club all agree–think that the original title should have been kept because “A Bookshop in Berlin” is clearly a marketing ploy and sets the reader up for disappointment, as there are only 2 chapters talking about Ms. Frenkel’s *La Maison du Livre*. The original title of Frenkel’s book, No Place to Lay One’s Head, is much more appropriate for the story within (imagine that, an author knowing how to properly title her own book!).
One thing that stood out to me specifically was Ms. Frenkel’s attitude in writing her memoir. The tribulation she faced while being in hiding and navigating the war is one of a pure heart. She wrote this memoir after her escape, so it isn’t like a diary filled with emotions, however, even in recounting the people who were awful to her during this time, she had the ability and the desire to see past their actions and view them as human. To her, the German soldiers making the arrests weren’t “monsters”, they were patriotic boys who trusted their government to tell them the truth. The people who turned in the Jews–like herself–were looking out for their own families and believing the lies of the government. Her words never spewed hate onto people. And even while she was imprisoned and her jailer was awful to her (seriously, I was appalled), she still made jokes and found something to make that person human. I am just in awe of the attitude she chose to have, because if anyone had a right to hate, it was her and the many other victims of WWII.
Overall, this isn’t the most impactful memoir I’ve ever read–perhaps that has to do with some things getting lost in translation or not knowing much about Ms. Frenkel–but it is another person that I am glad survived the war and another bold story told. It’s worth reading once at least!