A Book­shop in Berlin: The Redis­cov­ered Mem­oir of One Woman’s Har­row­ing Escape from the Nazis

Françoise Frenkel (auth.), Stephanie Smee (trans.), Patrick Modi­ano (fwd.)

  • Review
By – February 24, 2020

A Book­shop in Berlin is the repub­lished mem­oir of a woman who near­ly slipped from the pages of his­to­ry. Fran­coise Frenkel was born in Lodz, Poland, and edu­cat­ed in Paris, France. She always had a pas­sion for books and she owned a suc­cess­ful French lan­guage book­store in Berlin until grow­ing pres­sure from the Nazis forced her to close the shop and flee. In hid­ing, Frenkel was forced to move often, stay­ing with peo­ple both depend­able and cor­rupt. She made three attempts to cross the Swiss bor­der and ulti­mate­ly launched her­self through the razor wire to safety.

Every bit as aston­ish­ing as Frenkel’s escape from the Nazis in 1942 is the sto­ry of how the book came to be repub­lished in 2019. Nobel Lau­re­ate Patrick Modi­ano, who wrote the for­ward to the new edi­tion, relates that a dusty copy was pulled from a junk sale by French author Michel Francesconi. It was then made pop­u­lar by blog­ger Valerie Sci­gala. In 2015, the mem­oir was repub­lished in France. Aus­tralian trans­la­tor Stephanie Smee found it on her son’s book­shelf while vis­it­ing him dur­ing a col­lege semes­ter abroad and sub­se­quent­ly approached Pen­guin Ran­dom House in Aus­tralia about pub­lish­ing a trans­lat­ed version.

Frenkel’s writ­ing has the vibran­cy and fresh­ness of an eye-wit­ness account, con­vey­ing the alert­ness of some­one just begin­ning to under­stand her own hor­ri­fy­ing expe­ri­ences. Her sen­tences are full of ellipses, para­graphs end­ing in the dot-dot-dots of lost thoughts, lost images, and lost sto­ries — giv­ing the read­er the sense that there’s so much more to say. Of leav­ing Berlin she wrote, The book­shop seemed almost unre­al in the first light of day. Then I rose to say my farewells…” Of evad­ing Gestapo patrols, The vehi­cle grew rapid­ly larg­er. It had tak­en time to reach me. The noise of the accelerator…Already it was long gone…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…”

Of Frenkel’s life, too, much is unre­solved. We don’t know what hap­pened to her fam­i­ly in Poland, or any­thing of her life in Switzer­land, or her years in Nice fol­low­ing the war. She had a hus­band in Paris, but he’s not men­tioned in the text. We don’t even have a pic­ture of what she looked like. Modi­ano, in his for­ward, sug­gests that this uncer­tain­ty is as it should be, thus her book will always remain for me that let­ter from an unknown woman, a let­ter for­got­ten poste restante for an eter­ni­ty, that you’ve received in error, it seems, but that per­haps was intend­ed for you.”

The only known review of Frenkel’s orig­i­nal pub­li­ca­tion is includ­ed in a Dossier at the end of this new edi­tion. It asks, Is Françoise Frenkel not one of our unsung hero­ines’?” Among the many atroc­i­ties of the Holo­caust, one was the ren­der­ing of so many people’s lives and sto­ries into a col­lec­tive anonymi­ty. This unearthed mem­oir is one few­er of the mil­lions lost, and for that alone the answer is yes — she is one of our hero­ines. That Frenkel relates her sto­ry with such imme­di­a­cy and strength should — eight decades lat­er — bring her the acclaim she deserves.

Juli Berwald Ph.D. is a sci­ence writer liv­ing in Austin, Texas and the author of Spine­less: the Sci­ence of Jel­ly­fish and the Art of Grow­ing a Back­bone. Her book on the future of coral will be pub­lished in 2021.

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