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!”