Francoise Frenkel, born Frymeta Frenkel, was a Polish Jew who opened Berlin’s first French-language bookstore in 1921. She fled Berlin after the infamous Kristallnacht, the Night of Broken Glass, that targeted Jewish shops and institutions, abandoning the beloved shop she’d had to fight to open. She went to France, which seemed safe at the time in comparison, although it would soon not be much of a refuge at all, of course.
“You should be credited for remaining at your post until the very last minute. Just like a valiant soldier,” the French cultural attache in Berlin told her. “He was trying to lessen the pain of separation from my beloved bookshop, just as before he had been so generous in helping me to defend it in the face of every adversity.”
Frenkel’s memoir was rediscovered in 2010 at a flea market in Nice, after having a small publication originally in 1945. It does feel like we’re flooded with Holocaust and Second World War memoirs, but as we close in on a time when there will soon no longer be anyone alive who lived through that time, it’s amazing that new or rediscovered narratives are still surfacing.
It was published in its original French, with the first English translation published in the UK in 2017. It’s titled No Place to Lay One’s Head, a much more fitting title for the contents. Once she left Berlin, Frenkel seemed to be on the move constantly. The US title is a bit of a misnomer, because her efforts opening and running the bookshop occupy only the very beginning of this story. The bulk of the book takes place in France, bouncing between locations as she desperately tries to outrun the Nazis and the collaborative Vichy government, making an unsuccessful attempt to cross into Switzerland for which she’d spend time in prison, and ultimately crossing successfully, where her narrative ends.
And actually, the Berlin-set scenes, where she describes the bureaucracy and difficulty of starting her bookshop, weren’t the most compelling. It doesn’t feel like it picks up until well into her time in France. That’s where this finds its uniqueness in the crowded field of Holocaust refugee memoirs. What Frenkel does so well is show the frenetic energy of the times, as laws and their enforcement changed constantly and seemingly arbitrarily. Trusts are broken as she’s shuffled from one back room hiding place to another, and there’s an overwhelming gratitude for the people who help her at great risk to themselves and without ulterior motive.
The elephant in the room is her never-mentioned husband, Simon Raichenstein. We only learn of him through the supplementary materials and chronology. They opened the bookshop together, although he’s elided from her retelling of that story. He went to Paris before her and was eventually deported to Auschwitz, where he died in 1942.
She occasionally mentions her mother and “relatives” who she misses and hopes to reunite with, but never him. It’s not covered in the supplementary materials, either, which include photographs and original documents related to her life. But this question of her husband becomes an annoying one. If they were separated, fine; but it’s maddening not to know what the situation was, especially with the way he’s carefully, clearly excised from every story that involved him. We just have to accept the mystery.
It’s worth persisting through what feels like a slog at the beginning of the book for the more exciting and introspective second half. Maybe recalling this period, as she was close to freedom in Switzerland, is where Frenkel could most relax even writing about it. After being cooped up in tiny rooms controlled by questionable characters for so long, she experiences autonomy and simple joy again: “Who is this woman in disguise, walking with a spring in her step and singing a childhood tune under her breath? I am that peasant woman in her clogs, humming along in time to her steps as she walks down the white road through the wondrous countryside.”
She’s also one of those writers or diarists with a gift for observation, and in quick sketches can capture something evocative of the people she’s describing. Like this oft-complaining host: “As I listened to her, a certain uneasiness crept over me: my hostess seemed at odds with the entire universe.” Don’t we all know such a person!
In addition to showing what a life on the run felt like, Frenkel also does a great service in showing how events in Nazi Germany were perceived by some on the outside. The gendarmes that captured her group near the Swiss border in their first attempt to cross discuss the camps with these frightened, anxious refugees, who ask if the Swiss have seen the awful things happening in concentration camps. They acknowledge they have, calling what they saw “appalling,” but reason that prisoners “must have committed crimes or some sort of fraud in Germany,” and repeating the line about Jews being blamed for conditions in the country before and after the First World War. “Such ignorance defied belief,” Francoise observes, with no small amount of exhaustion.
An occasionally frustrating story, as the author’s reasons for editing certain events and people out of her story are unclear, but a valuable document and illuminating look at her experience nonetheless.
A Bookshop in Berlin:
The Rediscovered Memoir of One Woman’s Harrowing Escape from the Nazis
by Francoise Frenkel
originally published as Rien où poser sa tête,
translated from French by Stephanie Smee
published December 3, 2019 by Atria
I received an advance copy courtesy of the publisher for unbiased review.