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.