Françoise Frenkel was a Polish Jew, who adored books and spent much of her early life studying and working in Paris. Her passion for French literature led her to open the first French bookshop in Berlin in 1921, a resounding success in spite of the predominantly Francophobe sentiment in Germany following the first world war. She happily reminisces over its ‘curiously mixed clientele’: ‘Famous artists, celebrities and well-heeled women pore over the fashion magazines, speaking in hushed tones so as not to disturb the philosopher buried in his Pascal.’ It soon became a place of readings, lectures, plays and parties and an essential stop for any French writer passing through Berlin.
The problems began in 1935, escalating from laborious new customs paperwork to Frenkel being summoned by the Gestapo, although the bookshop was spared the atrocity of Kristallnacht as it was a foreign business. Unsurprisingly, Frenkel was unable to sell the shop, so in August 1939 she paid off her debts and fled to Paris, where the cultural attaché praised her for ‘remaining at your post until the very last minute. Just like a valiant soldier’.
The dream was over, the nightmare well and truly begun. We are too familiar with the sorts of events Frenkel endured over the coming years as a Jew in occupied France —and the cycle of fleeing, hiding, being arrested, escaping, while death circled ever closer — yet this account is particularly vital. Frenkel wrote it in 1943–44 (in Switzerland, which she did eventually reach, throwing herself over the barbed wire border as a soldier approached), so the events are recent and the prose has a terrible immediacy. Certain episodes burn into the reader’s vision with the intensity of nightmares. For instance, when Jewish children were forcibly separated from their parents:
In one hotel on the Côte d’Azur, a woman who had escaped the round-ups threw herself from the window with her young child. When they picked her up, her legs were broken. The child was dead, crushed in the fall.
Frenkel suffered many physical hardships — months of being confined to a single room, nights spent in appalling conditions under arrest, crossing the mountains with shoes so painful that she resorted to walking in woollen stockings — but what seems harder still was the immense emotional strain: feeling trapped and alone, and the inertia brought about by long periods of confinement. Looking back on meeting the obviously incompetent smuggler who fails to get her to the Swiss border, Frenkel wonders why she had put her life in his hands. She reflects:
It was because of the desire, stronger than anything else, to be done with it, not to think anymore, not to look for anything anymore, to submit. I was the drowning person giving up the fight, abandoning herself to the elements.
As well as a riveting account of her own experience, Frenkel offers intriguing insights into the behaviour of French people under occupation. There are heroes like the Mariuses, into whose hairdressing salon she wandered, dazedly seeking help on her way back from the market, having been warned against returning to her hotel. They sheltered her and were to come to her assistance time and again: ‘However great the joy of being saved, even greater must be the joy of those noble souls who come to the aid of a human being in distress.’
At the opposite pole are the police:
Some deep sadistic urge must lie hidden in every man, waiting to be exposed when the opportunity arises. It was enough to have given those boys, quite gentle enough in themselves, the abominable power to hunt and track down defenceless human beings, for them to carry out the task with a peculiar and savage bitterness resembling joy.
Most fascinating — and perhaps most troubling — are the many people whose morality lay somewhere in between: those who struggled in balancing the equation of self-interest and high-risk humanitarian help, who offered shelter in exchange for rent ‘equivalent to that of a luxury hotel’, or who suddenly threatened to turn Frenkel in unless she paid an extortionate sum of money.
Frenkel’s portrait of a people she loved is a complex and unsettling view of humanity, in all its shifting shades. Inevitably, it makes us wonder how we would act in the circumstances, and forces us to face the probably disappointing truth.