by Francoise Frenkel
(Atria Books Translation December 2019)
Many booklovers regularly scour bookstores and book sales for rare books or books with special personal meaning. In 2010, an unknown person found a 1945 French memoir at a charity jumble sale in Nice, France. Translated from French, the title was No Place to Lay One’s Head. In recent years, it was translated into English, re-titled A Bookshop in Berlin, and has become a valuable addition to the literature of the Jewish experience in WWII Nazi-occupied France.
Francoise Frenkel was born in Poland in 1889. From her earliest years, she loved books and reading. She attended the Sorbonne in Paris, where she remained during WWI while unable to return to her family in Poland. In 1919 she began working in a Paris bookshop where she already spent most of her time. While it started as her dream job where she gained valuable experience, it soon became her dream to open her own shop.
The question was WHERE she could open one that would have a good chance of success. After researching various cities in Europe, Berlin seemed to be the best choice: there was no existing French bookshop, and it was becoming a vibrant cultural center at that time. In 1921 Frenkel and her husband opened La Maison du Livre.
(A note about Frenkel’s husband here. She and Simon Raichenstein met as students in pre-WWI Paris. Both ran the Berlin bookshop, but Simon returned alone to Paris in 1933 under a Nansen passport for refugees and stateless people. In July 1942 Simon was arrested there, taken to the horrific French concentration camp Drancy, then sent to Auschwitz where he died within a month. It’s unknown why Frenkel did not mention him once in her memoir.
Hitler came to power in 1933, and Simon must have seen the danger of staying in Germany. Like so many others, he re-located to Paris thinking he’d be safe. I suspect his story would be just as interesting as his wife’s, but like so many stories of those times, it’s lost.)
Frenkel’s bookshop was indeed a success. It became “an almost obligatory landmark for French writers of the interwar period” visiting Berlin. One French writer noted that Frenkel “wanted her bookstore to be a centre for French thought.” [p. 240] Protection from the French embassy in Berlin proved helpful as Nazi power took hold.
As much as Frenkel loved her bookshop, the political situation finally became too dangerous for her as a Jew to stay. She left Berlin for Paris in July 1939, mere weeks before Germany invaded Poland, and was separated from her Polish family by another war. At the end of May 1940, literally days ahead of the German occupation, Frenkel fled Paris for the supposedly safe area farther south.
Eventually the German occupation spread throughout France. Despite agreements and promises, the dragnet tightened, putting Jews in ever greater danger over time. No place was safe from Nazis and French police, but Jews were also not allowed to leave (legally)! The one source of help until the Allies arrived was the French Resistance.
The bulk of the book describes in detail the measures Frenkel took not to be captured by the Germans: how to find places to hide and trustworthy people to help hide her vs. those who would betray or use her to enrich themselves; finding food; making connections to move on to the next step; obtaining forged documents that would pass inspection; long periods of waiting interspersed with moments of terror while escaping, fleeing for her life. She was a woman in her 50s at that point, not at an age where she should be living such a stressful life with an inadequate diet and chronic sleeplessness.
By the end of 1940 Frenkel had made her way to Nice, France. She was able to stay at various places in that area for 2 years. In December 1942, she was arrested when trying to cross the border into Switzerland illegally and sent to a prison in Annecy.
Surprisingly, she was acquitted at her trial, and returned to the Nice area to wait for another escape attempt. She successfully crossed into Switzerland in June 1943. She remained there for the rest of the war while writing this memoir, then returned to Nice after the war where she lived until her death in 1975.
I’ve read quite a lot of similar memoirs and histories of this period. In fact, Frenkel’s memoir has been compared to Suite Francaise by Irene Nemirovsky, which I’ve also read. In my opinion, Frenkel’s memoir has an immediacy that’s lacking in other works because she wrote it while it was still fresh for her. I want to stress that this is not a depressing book, but rather penetrates deeply into the reader’s psyche precisely because of that feeling of immediacy.
It is also an uplifting, though sobering, book. Frenkel realizes that the good outcome for her in many ways was a matter of luck, although she doesn’t use that word. Being acquitted at her trial and released from prison was an unexpected and unexplainable event which probably saved her from starving to death.
Rather than feeling bitterness about her circumstances, Frenkel has the grace to express gratitude for those who helped her survive, sometimes risking their own safety. In her Forward, she says:
As I often do, I saved my favorite part of this memoir until last: Frenkel’s poignant goodbye to her beloved Berlin bookshop and books.
Frenkel lost much in her life, but never lost her love of books. In a way, her loss is our gain in the form of her memoir, rediscovered by some unknown soul by chance (or is it??) decades later, and passed along to those of us who love books as she did. The books survived long after those who would destroy them forever did not. That is as it should be.
[This edition of Frenkel’s book includes a copy of her dossier and several photos, but none of her are known to still exist.]