The BookBrowse Review

Published January 22, 2020

ISSN: 1930-0018

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A Bookshop in Berlin
A Bookshop in Berlin
The Rediscovered Memoir of One Woman's Harrowing Escape from the Nazis
by Francoise Frenkel

Paperback (4 Aug 2020), 288 pages.
Publisher: Atria Books
ISBN-13: 9781501199851

"A beautiful and important book" (The Independent) in the tradition of rediscovered works like Suite Française and The Nazi Officer's Wife, the prize-winning memoir of a fearless 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, A Bookshop in Berlin is a remarkable story of survival and resilience, of human cruelty and human spirit. In the tradition of Suite Française and The Nazi Officer's Wife, this book is the tale of a fearless woman whose lust for life and literature refuses to leave her, even in her darkest hours.

Chapter 2
On the Eve of WWII:
Three Days Before the Bombing of Paris

In France, nobody believed war was approaching. I breathed in the air of the capital. Very swiftly, I allowed myself to be won over by the general feeling of confidence. I found myself hopeful of an imminent departure and of being reunited with my family.

Throughout these days of heightened crisis, Paris retained its usual outward appearance: movement, color, vitality.

People were discussing the situation on the café terraces, on street corners. In the metro, they would read their neighbor's newspaper over their shoulder; the need to communicate and, if possible, to discover any fresh details from somebody who was perhaps better informed, spurred people to speak to anybody they encountered, to stop in the street to listen, to look, to discuss matters endlessly.

The general public would wait outside the printers' to buy the papers, ink still wet from the presses. The crowd would jostle to snatch up any new issue; news vendors on their bicycles seemed to sprout wings as they flew down the street. People queued up in front of the newsstands well before the arrival of the newspaper couriers. Some would take several papers, of differing opinion, scour them feverishly on the spot, then pass them on to other readers.

At times the mainstream broadsheets would reassure the population; at other times they encouraged people to prepare for the inevitable.

Radios blared relentlessly in homes, courtyards, squares, offices, restaurants, and cafés. It was impossible to escape their hold. Their rasping tones permeated everywhere, even into theaters, and into the intervals of classical music concerts.

People listened haphazardly to bulletins in any language. A true tower of Babel! Some made certain to wake up in the middle of the night to listen to American broadcasts. It was an obsession! Nervous tension grew to indescribable levels in those days.

Utterly consumed by a fervent desire for peace, the French people were hoping. The notorious phrase: Last year, too, we expected the worst and yet everything worked out ... circulated from mouth to mouth, like the chorus of a popular song.

Which is why, when hostilities broke out, the whole of France was plunged into dark despair.

For me, it was heartrendingly distressing.

Only then did I truly comprehend the distance separating me from my mother. I saw myself remaining far from her and all my loved ones for the duration of the war, that is for an eternity of torment and worry about them.

The German army was advancing, trampling over Poland and taking control. I anxiously followed the enemy's lightning progress on the map ...

The wireless relentlessly reported the horrifying details of carnage, battles, bombardment, devastation, and civilian massacres. Bulletins were broadcast at mealtimes and one had to get used to eating, drinking, chewing, swallowing, all the while listening to the bloody and disastrous stories in the news. Horror made itself at home in everyday life.

From one day to the next, Paris had fallen strangely silent. And so began for France that curious military lull, "the Phoney War."

It was then the press initiated an extensive campaign against what was known as "the Fifth Column," which had been growing for years. Keen for a diversion, the general public became obsessed with these sensational revelations.

The prefecture of police instituted "extraordinary measures" of a broad-reaching nature, resolving to conduct a census of all foreigners and to review their status.

These measures, drawn up without any forethought, were implemented on the spot. Police stations, hotel management, landlords, concierges, all those who employed foreigners were asked to ensure compliance with the new regulations.

The whole population started to keep an eye out for "suspects." Overnight, thousands of foreigners took up position in front of the prefecture of police, forming a line that stretched past the Quai aux Fleurs and reached all the way to Boulevard Saint-Michel.

Full Excerpt

From A Bookshop in Berlin: The Rediscovered Memoir of One Woman's Harrowing Escape from the Nazis by Françoise Frenkel. Reprinted by permission of Atria, a Division of Simon & Schuster, Inc. Copyright © 2019 by Françoise Frenkel.

In this recently rediscovered memoir, a Polish Jewish woman named Francoise Frenkel recounts her salvation during the ascension of the Nazi regime in Germany.

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In A Bookshop in Berlin, Francoise Frenkel narrates her struggle to survive World War II as a refugee. Born in Poland in 1889 but living in Berlin at the outbreak of the war, Frenkel eventually made her way to safety in Switzerland, and from there wrote her memoir, originally titled No Place to Lay One's Head. It was published in 1945, but few copies were produced and it was largely lost to history before being rediscovered during an attic decluttering in southern France in 2010. The book was brought to an Emmaus Companions charity sale, where—by happenstance—Nobel Prize-winning novelist Patrick Modiano acquired it. This book is Frenkel's story in her own words, renamed, translated and republished.

The book opens with Frenkel's reflections on why she became a bookseller, rooted in a long-held appreciation for books that will be familiar to many readers. When studying in Paris at the Sorbonne, Frenkel's adoration of French culture collided with her love for all things literary. These passions driving her, Frenkel boldly opened up the first and only French-language bookshop in Berlin, "La Maison du Livre Francais." The shop attracted diplomats, authors, artists, celebrities, teachers, students and thinkers, uniting those who appreciated French culture in Germany's capital. It was a celebrated place where people could hold cultural meetings, engage in debate, recite poetry, play music and perform theater. But as WWII encroached, being a foreign-born Jewish business owner associated with restricted books was a great risk.

In 1938, Nazi leaders executed a violent pogrom across major cities to intimidate Jewish people in Germany, destroying Jewish-owned synagogues, homes and businesses. After this attack—often referred to as "Kristallnacht," or the Night of Broken Glass—friends convinced Frenkel to go abroad to secure her safety. Although heartbroken to abandon the bookshop she had nurtured and grown for 17 years, Frenkel made her way to Paris. She had no idea where the war would end up taking her.

Frenkel's personal account is broken up into chapters based on each major move she made leading up to and throughout the war. Much of it unfolds in France—including Paris, Avignon, Vichy, Nice, Grenoble, Annecy and Saint-Julien. In many ways, France is the centering force in the memoir. The original edition was even published in French, even though it was not Frenkel's mother tongue. In this story of survival and escape, Frenkel is in search of safety, but she is one of the "hunted souls," unwelcome within the borders of both Germany and occupied France, but forbidden to flee elsewhere.

Despite her ordeal, Frenkel has a remarkably grateful spirit. She chooses to emphasize the kindness of strangers and friends that made her survival possible: Monsieur and Madame Marius of Nice who let her stay with them, provided her with necessities, and connected her to friends abroad; Madame Lucienne, who, despite her trust in the government and devotion to civil service, took Frenkel in for a brief period of time; Monsieur Jean Letellier, the architect and ex-serviceman who accompanied her to the outskirts of the Swiss border. As Frenkel describes it, the empathy of others who disregarded danger in service to her welfare was what allowed her escape: "I was the beneficiary of one generous gesture after another." Even discussing the xenophobic and anti-Semitic—from townspeople to prison guards to soldiers—Frenkel's words are void of resentment, sometimes even sympathetic.

Frenkel's memoir feels unfinished in a number of ways. For example, she hardly mentions her husband, Simon Raichenstein, a choice that feels out of place given that she regularly expresses her desire to reconnect with family, including her mother and cousins, who she hopes are safely strewn across Europe. Historians have confirmed that Raichenstein died in Auschwitz in August of 1942. Perhaps it was a point of trauma too miserable for the author to examine in her memoir. Another unfinished feature is the book's conclusion. It stops abruptly, right as she crosses the Swiss border to safety. As a result, Frenkel's life post-war is a mystery. However, what we do know of her story serves as a reminder not to forget the terror of the Holocaust and how ordinary people were affected by it.

Frenkel succeeds in sharing an unusual, beautiful type of war story, one that is far less graphic and brutal than many others the reader may have encountered. Instead of violence, she turns her attention to the goodness that can illuminate dark times, the small and large acts of resistance that webbed together to shield her through years of dislocation and eventually helped her to safety.

Reviewed by Jamie Chornoby

New York Times
The question of whether and how she will survive drives Frenkel’s account. But the misadventures of her personal belongings provide a subtle yet humanizing strand of the narrative, as does the documentary material provided at the end of the book. She never fails to tell us exactly where her things are...The material remnants of people’s lives bring their owners back to human scale. Frenkel’s story, from lost bookshop to lost trunk, is a poignant reminder of this.

The Times Literary Supplement (UK)
The book is not only a moving memoir but also an intriguing historical document, thanks not least to Frenkel's emphasis on the often unsolicited help she received from ordinary French people.

The Sunday Times (UK)
An astonishing gripping as any thriller.

Publishers Weekly
[R]iveting...Frenkel, who died in 1975, writes that it is 'the duty of those who have survived to bear witness to ensure the dead are not forgotten.' Frenkel's remarkable story of resilience and survival does just that, and will truly resonate with readers.

Booklist (starred review)
Insightful, sympathetic, suspenseful, and eventually triumphant, this memoir is a worthy addition to the WWII canon.

Kirkus Reviews (starred review)
Detailed, emotional, and careful...A compelling account of crushing oppression, those who sought to flee it, and those who, at great risk, offered help.

Author Blurb Lisa Appignanesi, award-winning author of Losing the Dead and Mad, Bad, and Sad
I cried and still couldn't put it down.

Author Blurb Philippe Sands, author of East West Street
A lost classic...Frenkel's tale and prose is utterly compelling, at once painful and exquisite.

Write your own review

Rated 5 of 5 of 5 by Elizabeth of Silver's Reviews
Do Not Miss Reading This Book
Françoise Frenkel always loved books, libraries, and especially bookstores.

Her dream was to open a bookstore, but would her dream about opening a French bookstore in Berlin in 1920 be a good idea?

She was successful until 1935 when the police started showing up and confiscating books from her shelves and newspapers because they had been blacklisted.

Besides scrutinizing her books, they questioned her travels. This was just the beginning of her hardships and ordeals.

A BOOKSHOP IN BERLIN tells the story of Francoise Frenkel's life and her love of books, her bookshop, and France. We follow her as she lives through occupied France and endures what the European people had to deal with. Unthinkable, unpleasant misery and situations plagued her and all people during this time.

A BOOKSHOP IN BERLIN is a treasure for historical fiction fans as well as book lovers.

I normally do not read memoirs, but A BOOKSHOP IN BERLIN is very well done and educational.

You were easily put into Francoise’s situations and her emotions were yours. 5/5

This book was given to me by the publisher via NetGalley in exchange for an honest review.

Print Article Publisher's View  


Two men stand in front of a shattered storefront window after Kristallnacht In her memoir A Bookshop in Berlin, Francoise Frenkel describes how Kristallnacht ("crystal night") was the impetus for her emigration out of Germany. Also called "the Night of Broken Glass" and the November Pogroms, the events that unfolded on November 9 and 10 of 1938 formed the first mass, violent, state-mandated action against Jewish people under the Nazi regime. For this reason, many consider it to be the start of the Holocaust. It resulted in the destruction of at least 7,000 Jewish businesses, 1,400 synagogues and countless Jewish homes. 30,000 Jewish men from major cities across Germany and parts of German-controlled Austria were deported to concentration camps.

The purported cause of Kristallnacht was the assassination of Ernst vom Rath, a German diplomat working at the embassy in Paris. On November 7, 1938, Hershel Grynszpan—a Polish-Jewish teenager whose impoverished family had recently been deported from Germany—shot vom Rath, apparently hoping the assassination would alert the world to the human rights injustices unfolding in Europe. Upon arrest, Grynszpan declared that "Being a Jew is not a crime. I am not a dog. I have a right to live and the Jewish people have a right to exist on earth. Wherever I have been I have been chased like an animal." However, the Nazis argued that this was proof that Jewish people had constructed a worldwide plot against Germany.

Regardless of the assassination, a planned attack against the Jewish people was at that point all but inevitable, the result of years of political, economic, legal and social targeting that brewed within the German government and population after World War I. For example, the Nuremberg Laws (1935) denied Jews German citizenship, stripping away the right to vote, take office or work in various professions such as medicine, law and education. It also prevented marriages of "suspect" people viewed as inferior by the state—Jews, Romas, Afro-Germans, homosexuals, the disabled and anyone categorized as a political dissident. Other legislation outlawed kosher practices and restricted access to public works. A number of economic attacks—boycotts, harsh taxes, the denial of health insurance and benefits, and forced asset-selling—were launched, too.

Although incidents of assault against Jewish people erupted throughout Germany prior to Kristallnacht, the riots were proof that the state itself could further push towards the extermination of various undesired people in an official capacity. On November 9 and 10, local police forces and fire stations refrained from protecting persecuted people, abiding by telegraphed orders from the Gestapo—the secret state police of Nazi Germany. The majority of citizens either joined in on the attacks or refused to intervene. Even in the aftermath, there was compliance with the state-sanctioned xenophobia, anti-Semitism and violence, as insurance companies were restricted from compensating Jewish people for property damage. An "atonement fee" was levied against the Jewish people on their assets as well.

According to estimates from the Jewish Virtual Library, prior to Adolf Hitler's rise as Chancellor of the state, there were around half a million Jewish people in Germany. A year before Kristallnacht, only half remained. After Kristallnacht, more than 115,000 fled, not including those murdered on the days of the attack and those exiled to concentration camps. Kristallnacht terrorized most of the remaining Jewish people into emigrating, a culmination of the results of various anti-Semitic policies and practices that had intensified since Hitler took power.

Frenkel's memoir tells of the rapid fires, smashed glass, robbed homes and rampant assault and murder that she witnessed outside of her beloved bookshop. To hear similar first-hand accounts from survivors of Kristallnacht, watch the video below from the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum and the USC Shoah Foundation Institute.

Broken storefront windows after Kristallnacht, courtesy of USHMM

Filed under People, Eras & Events

By Jamie Chornoby

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