Polish born Françoise Frenkel begins by giving us a sensory image of her love of books. She recalls that as a child she imbued personality into each book, describing their “attire” in multi-coloured bindings: “Balzac came dressed in red leather, Sienkiewicz in yellow Morocco, Tolstoy in parchment, Reymont’s Paysans clad in the fabric of an old peasant’s neckerchief”. We watch her progress as she opens and runs a French bookshop, La Maison du Livre, in Berlin from 1921 to 1939. The calm determination with which she surmounts the various bureaucratic obstacles to this is a foretaste of her patience and capacity for survival.
We share her growing dread as the Third Reich makes inroads; the banality of its particular evil is conveyed well in her descriptions. After Hitler comes to power she mentions how an inspection of whether she was following the “eintopf” (“one pot” regulation in which everyone was supposed to donate money saved from eating frugally to the Nazi cause) leads to her first interrogation by the Gestapo. She is released (after praising the Autobahn) but decides to leave her beloved bookshop straight after Kristallnacht as she perceives that the people are not prepared to protest against the atrocities and wants to avoid seeing: “the rapid transformation of German children into the restless larvae of the Hitler Youth”.
There is a simultaneous poignancy in the way she pays tribute to “some brave souls” who tried to resist Hitler and paid the price, including “desperate souls who had thrown themselves under trains or out of windows; the permanent disappearances in concentration camps; the return, after long absences, of customers — such elegant and enlightened minds — heads shorn like convicts, anxious, with faraway expressions and trembling hands”.
Hunted through the south of France, Frenkel is by turns émigré, fugitive, prisoner and refugee. She describes the mass of people fleeing Vichy with a visceral intensity: “Perched on chairs, the old people were balancing a child, a cat, a dog, a cage, baskets or loaves of bread on their laps. Next to them, livestock and rabbits. As far as the eye could see, cyclists were hemmed in by more trucks, horse-drawn vehicles, and cars covered in mattresses.”
Watchful and critical, she praises the many selfless acts of solidarity that guide her past the Nazis and even manages to find humour in her more exploitative hosts (the worst of these takes a week’s worth of groceries and cigarettes before evicting her).
It is hard to believe that Frenkel survived this impossible picaresque nightmare but she keeps the reader fixed and breathless at every twist of disappointment and solidarity. This book is valuable both as the document of a survivor and as a warning of how insidiously fascism can strangle justice and wreak lives if unchallenged; it ranks with the very best of war memoirs.