By now it should be obvious to readers of this blog that I am fascinated by most aspects of World War II, life under the Nazis and anything else related to this time period. Stories of personal survival are especially interesting to me. Add in a bookshop and I knew I had to read it.
This is a “rediscovered” memoir of a well-educated and sophisticated Jewish woman from Poland who opens the first French-language bookshop in Berlin in 1921. She weathers the rise of the Nazis and survives their consolidation of power through her protected status as a foreign-business owner. The bookshop, which receives top billing in the title, is barely a part of the story. Eventually, she must abandon her business and leave Germany to seek refuge in Nice where she goes through the trials associated with trying to escape the clutches of the Nazis.
It is with extreme caution that I say this, for I would never, ever belittle what anyone went through under the Nazi regime. The author, though apparently not at all religious, was a Jew and the terror she had to have lived with is unimaginable. That said, I have never encountered the emotions this book generated in any other book or memoir of the Holocaust. I couldn’t decide if she was being extremely modest or extremely smug about her situation. Although she was in real danger and was putting others in real danger by hiding her, I never felt she realized this. It could just be her way of writing–her style of “speaking.”
She had the money to accomplish everything, she had good contacts, and connected repeatedly with various extremely brave French citizens who helped her to a degree not often seen in Holocaust literature. They did so at grave risk to themselves and their own families. Swiss friends put themselves out not once, but three times, to help get her to safety. And yet, she seemed rather self-righteous about her life being worthy of all the heroic acts that helped to save her. Her few last-minute emotions about leaving France seemed put-on or added to the narrative for a touch of poignancy.
Those are hash things to say about the story of a woman facing near-certain death and I am ashamed of thinking them, but that is how her story came across. How it came across and how she thought she was telling it can be two very different things, of course. That my perceptions may be due to the language she used being poorly translated or that her true and sincere humility came across as arrogance could be another problem.
Her story is fascinating, though the monologue style of the narrative also got a bit tedious. I longed for more of other voices to give more emotion, more urgency, to her plight. Even when being spirited out into the night she never came across as rushed or frightened in the least which was quite strange. Nonetheless, this memoir is an important addition or re-addition to the canon of Holocaust memoirs.
A Berlin Bookshop by Francoise Frenkel