Nobel Prize winner Patrick Modiano explains in the preface to A Bookshop in Berlin that the memoir was written shortly after the author, Françoise Frenkel, escaped to Switzerland and survived the end of World War II. The memoir was originally published as Rien où poser ma tête. The French translates to “nowhere to rest my head,” a fitting title considering that the book catalogs Frenkel’s efforts to stay ahead of the Holocaust. With the help of brave French citizens who hid her and helped her eventually escape to Switzerland, Frenkel travels over the course of 1939 to 1943 from Berlin to Paris, to Nice, to Grenoble and Annecy, near the Swiss border. Unlike so many millions, Frenkel survived.
What drew me to A Bookshop in Berlin was Frenkel’s life during the 1920s and 1920s, when she ran Maison du livre français in Berlin. The Maison was the only French language book store in the city. At first, Frenkel was told that no one would want a French book store in a German city in the aftermath of World War I; the bookstore instead becomes a surprising success. It becomes a city institution among French speakers and I enjoyed reading as Frenkel sang the praises of various French authors whose work she sold. I couldn’t help but contrast Frenkel’s experience with that of Shaun Bythell at The Bookshop, in Wigtown, Scotland. Frenkel’s life as a bookseller is a lot more intellectual than Bythell’s sparring with odd and sometimes belligerent customers.
After Kristallnacht, Frenkel flees Germany. The next four years are a blur, at least as Frenkel wrote it. It seems that she hardly finds a place to rest her head when something happens that sends her into danger: changes to residence and identity papers, round ups, informers, collaborators. Thankfully, Frenkel has good friends. These friends help her hide, organize papers, and get her to the border. But, because the book’s pace is so rapid, it’s hard to get to know any of these amazing people. It’s hard to get to know Frenkel, to be honest.
As a recovered memoir written at the close at World War II and the Holocaust, A Bookshop in Berlin is a remarkable historical find. But as a work of literature, I found it lacking depth. There are moments when Frenkel pauses to appreciate the beauty of Avignon, for example, that provide a little detail. This book left me unsatisfied but, I can’t fault Frenkel too much. This was her first and only book, one that I think she might have written to help process everything that had happened to her since Kristallnacht. I would recommend this to readers looking for a unique story about the Holocaust, one that lets us see the experience of a woman who was persecuted but managed to avoid deportation to the death camps.
I received a free copy of this book from the publisher via NetGalley, for review consideration.