“A Bookshop In Berlin” by Francoise Frenkel
REVIEW BY MEREDITH MCKINNIE
“I recalled all the suffering I had endured, almost more than any human could bear, but at the same time, I remained profoundly conscious of France’s own terrible misfortunes and her complete subjugation. Suddenly, I became aware of a growing feeling within – a heartrending longing for this country I was leaving behind.”
A lover of literature, and a Jewish woman who delighted in sharing the experience of reading with her peers, Francoise Frenkel opened La Maison du Livre, a French bookstore, in Berlin in 1921. Far from her native Poland, but still in the relative familiarity of Europe, Francoise was comfortable in elite circles, entertaining diplomats, celebrities, and the established clientele that frequented her shop. Shortly into her time in Berlin, Nazi sentiments begin to creep into the metropolis, and while Francoise can stay above the fray due to her popularity, the eventual occupation of Germany seals her fate as one of the others. Her years-long escape carries Francoise across Europe, primarily in France, seeking refuge in the unlikeliest of places with surprising characters. The book also details the slow, yet swift, advancement of Nazi sentiments and government regulations across Europe. It details the horror of those appalled by the developments and the acquiescence of too many. The depiction of homegrown hatred and resentment that hardens over time is clearly illustrated.
The true story of Frenkel’s escape from Nazi capture was only uncovered in the last decade. The English version is a translation of the original document written in French. The first fews chapters take some adjusting on the reader’s part, as some phrases seem awkward in our native tongue and often disconnect the narrative from the language. The compelling story captures the imagination of the reader, as Francoise routinely goes into hiding to avoid detection and deportation. Frenkel relies on the kindness of acquaintances and strangers, people willing to risk their own lives to resist inhumane laws and practices. Though well-connected and granted a temporary visa for Switzerland, the journey to the border and crossing into unoccupied territory is punishable by death, and Frenkel is forced to rely on her wits and instinct in times of isolation.
While there are some harsh realities explained and endured by Frenkel, the narrative is comfortably readable. Often people avoid subjects of the Holocaust because the reality is too gruesome and frightening to ponder. This is not one of those books. The atrocities of the war are not ignored, but the details are not so explicit that they’re overwhelming. The beauty in the story is found in the woman’s endurance during seemingly unbearable hardship. While all Holocaust stories are tragic and unique in circumstances, the universality of a group of people being hunted resonates in each person’s account. This woman’s story speaks to resilience of the human spirit, the strength one can summon within herself, and the willingness of the unhunted to stand up for those persecuted.