Monthly Archives: February 2020
Francoise Frenkel was born to be a bookseller. Books were her favorite gifts right from childhood. Such was her love for books that the bookshelf that she had custom made for her sixteenth birthday had glass walls on all four sides and was promptly placed in the middle of her bedroom.
Born in Poland, life took her to Paris, “for long years of study and work.’ For someone who spent every spare moment of hers “along the riverbanks in front of the bouquinistes’ old, damp cases of books,” it was only natural that she started working in a bookshop.
The First World War left its aftermath on her homeland and home. Returning to Poland she finds her home almost bare and with no trace of her beloved books and her dream bookshelf. However, when the time came to chose a profession, she didn’t have to think twice, selling books it was. The Francophile that she had turned into, her first choice was to open a French bookshop in Poland. Fate led her to Berlin instead. In no time ‘La Maison du Livre’ became a haven for intellectuals and artists alike, it was frequented by diplomats and celebrities.
She started facing difficulties in 1935 as Jews were becoming targets of suspicion. Importing books became a challenge with innumerable bureaucratic hurdles to be faced. Confiscation of newspapers and books of blacklisted authors became the order of the day. Then came the forms that asked details of her race, generations of her family. Her narration here was eerily familiar to what we see and hear in India these days.
“Are you Frau So-and-So? Father’s name? Mother’s name? Race? Age? Date and place of birth? Identity papers! You are accused of having left at Easter for an unknown destination and of crossing the border illegally.”
Then came Kristallnach – the wave of violent anti-Jewish pogroms that took place on November 9 and 10, 1938.
“The city burned like Nero’s Rome that day, engulfed in an atmosphere of destruction.
Goods and wares which had been hurled out of windows were carried off by the mob. Whoever tried to defend himself or to save his property was manhandled and abused.
This time, there were bloody, murderous encounters. Everything took place under the very noses of an uninterested police force.
Right next door to these scenes of looting, officers were directing traffic.”
Her bookshop was spared, but the time had come to move on, or literally flee to Paris. And from there starts her saga in search of refuge. From Paris to Avignon to Vichy, Clermont-Ferrand, Nice and Annecy, she is helped by a series of French people most of whom are ashamed of the happenings in their country and what their country men are forced to do. In the end, she literally throws herself over a fence of barbed wire into Switzerland.
It’s a tale of persecution, of unimaginable horror as we all know by now. But Frenkel’s story focuses mostly on the goodness of the people who helped her in spite of the grave risks they themselves would have faced. She gets arrested, is thrown into prison, faces some dark characters, however it’s light that pervades her narrative. Particularly moving for me was how she finds joy in nature even as she is waiting for one of the two – capture or escape, chances of capture being higher.
“A water fountain murmuring in the middle of a square. Nearby, a little bridge from ancient times, looking toylike with its delicate balustrade.
A footbridge seemingly lifted straight out of a theater set; the lively rushing stream and pervasive smell of watery plant life the only things to remind you that it was real. On the street corner, an old church surrounded by dilapidated buildings.”
‘The Rediscovered Memoir of One Woman’s Harrowing Escape From the Nazis’ says the red stamp on the cover of the book. The book was originally published in 1945, and went largely unnoticed I guess. It was then apparently rediscovered in a jumble sale in Nice and republished in 2015. Originally written in French, the English translation is by Stephanie Smee.
All through the book I couldn’t help but think of Anne Frank. In spite of all they had to go through, it is hope, light and the goodness of people that shines through. Frank broke free through her words, Frenkel, physically too. One is left thinking why we as a race never learn from what happened to others. How patterns keep repeating over the years, how a false sense of superiority or having been persecuted paves the way to persecuting another race, some other religion. Hope prevails, in spite of all the blood and gore.
These words sent a chill down the spine, though. Eerily familiar.
“Oh, the memory of the emergence of a leader with the face of an automaton, a face so deeply marked by hate and pride, dead to all feelings of love, friendship, goodness, or pity …
And clustered around this leader with his hysterical voice, a captive crowd capable of any violence, any murderous act!”
I am a faithful infidel. In my relationship with books, that is. At any point in time, there are at least 4-5 books in various stages of reading. Some are left behind on the way, to be forgotten completely. Others are picked up depending on the time of the day and the level of lucidity or exhaustion of the mind, as the case maybe. Interesting fiction gathers pace while engrossing non fiction is taken one or two chapters a day. The list on my e-reader keeps expanding almost daily. And half of them recede into a place so far down that sometimes it is lost for ever. However, some others are dragged back to the top as another list appears and the said book have to be read, just then.
So it was with this one. Downloaded some time ago, picked up for reading after an appearance somewhere in December. One chapter at a time, over a couple of months.
The premise was interesting enough, a psychotherapist, four patients of hers, and her therapist. I didn’t have any expectations, honestly. Maybe because I was not sure what to expect. Lori Gottlieb is an American writer and psychotherapist who writes the Dear Therapist in The Atlantic, said Wikipedia. Whatever, I was ready to take a chance.
Her patients – a self absorbed Hollywood producer, a thirty five old, recently married terminally ill woman, an almost seventy year old who is planning to kill herself if something really good did not happen to her soon enough, and a twenty something girl who flits from one relationship to another. Then catastrophe strikes the therapist. Her boyfriend who she was planning to get married to, drops a bombshell that he wants to opt out. The reason? He doesn’t think he can bring up another kid, that too someone as young as the author’s son. Her whole world comes crashing down and her search for healing brings her to another therapist’s couch, that of the inimitable Wendell. Of course, it’s a pseudo name. But that’s besides the point.
Reading through the first few chapters was like browsing through some magazine articles at random. The author was slowly building the confidence of her patients in her, while she herself was struggling to face her issues. Under the age old guise of finding a therapist ‘for a friend,’ she lands up on Wendell’s couch. Literally and of course figuratively. She is no different from her patients, talking about everything under the sun except what needed to be talked about.
Slowly, each story grows on you. What seems obvious are not the real issues. The roots of each case go deep, planted long ago, watered by others and nourished by themselves. The insecurities, deep rooted fears and in almost all cases, the never ending guilt that makes them stop on their tracks, stunting their emotional growth and affecting their relationships.
Even in the Western world where you can find more therapists than pediatricians, it is still a stigma. One of Lori’s patients even pays her in cash, not to leave any trails. Going to therapy is equated with being crazy, having a mental illness, that needs ‘treatment.’ Lori’s stories bring out how therapy is much more than that, how it is more about emotional growth, crossing the deep chasm of guilt, taking responsibility for our selves even when we might be scared to death.
The meaning of the book took a turn for better for me somewhere midway when the author quoted Viktor Frankl. Something that I keep reminding myself from time to time, to live by. If you haven’t yet, read his ‘A Man’s Search for Meaning.’ It will stay with you, for life.
“Everything can be taken from a man but one thing: the last of the human freedoms—to choose one’s attitude in any given set of circumstances.”
As the author starts confronting her demons, there is a marked change in her patient’s lives too. Slow, but sure. Yes, a young woman is inching closer to death, however in acceptance and thankful for the short and happy life she has had. With an obituary that could be the aim of all our lives,
“For every single day of her thirty-five years,” she wanted it to read, “Julie Callahan Blue was loved.”
The producer finds acceptance about a catastrophe that has turned his life upside down, the guilt laden old woman reaches out to the dear ones whom she had hurt deeply, the young woman learns to stand her ground in relationships and her smoking habit too. It’s miraculous how their attitudes and their lives itself change once acceptance is made.
“At some point, being a fulfilled adult means taking responsibility for the course of your own life and accepting the fact that now you’re in charge of your choices.”
As Lori and her patients cross their hurdles something unwinds in us too. So much dust and cobwebs swept under the carpet that our minds are. And the carpet growing mustier and thicker as years go by. How our behaviors are shaped by unresolved happenings and thoughts. How guilt overpowers us. That the uncertainties, the questions, the doubts, the angst is all necessary before we take that leap of faith.
“Sometimes you have to take a leap of faith and experience something before its meaning becomes apparent.”
So, here I am. Ready to leap.
Maybe I will find my own Wendell. And maybe I will talk to her.