The Rediscovered Memoir of One Woman’s Harrowing Escape from the Nazis
Published originally as No Place to Lay One’s Head
This is another Nonfiction Book Club selection! As a club that reads exclusively nonfiction, eventually we were going to make our way to WWII, either by reading a memoir or history book. We decided to go with A Bookshop in Berlin because it was a unique experience we were previously unfamiliar with, and involved a bookstore!
From the publisher marketing:
In 1921, Françoise Frenkel—a Jewish woman from Poland—fulfills a dream. She opens La Maison du Livre, Berlin’s first French bookshop, attracting artists and diplomats, celebrities and poets. The shop becomes a haven for intellectual exchange as Nazi ideology begins to poison the culturally rich city. In 1935, the scene continues to darken. First come the new bureaucratic hurdles, followed by frequent police visits and book confiscations.
Françoise’s dream finally shatters on Kristallnacht in November 1938, as hundreds of Jewish shops and businesses are destroyed. La Maison du Livre is miraculously spared, but fear of persecution eventually forces Françoise on a desperate, lonely flight to Paris. When the city is bombed, she seeks refuge across southern France, witnessing countless horrors: children torn from their parents, mothers throwing themselves under buses. Secreted away from one safe house to the next, Françoise survives at the heroic hands of strangers risking their lives to protect her.
Published quietly in 1945, then rediscovered nearly sixty years later in an attic, A Bookshop in Berlin is a remarkable story of survival and resilience, of human cruelty and human spirit. In the tradition of Suite Française and The Nazi Officer’s Wife, this book is the tale of a fearless woman whose lust for life and literature refuses to leave her, even in her darkest hours.
Like just about every other Nonfiction Book Club selection, I did a combination of listening to the audiobook versus reading the physical book. With A Bookshop in Berlin, I mostly listened, only reading when I had twenty pages left and book club was an hour away. The audiobook is very well done – I appreciated the narrator playing up the journal-esque aspect of the memoir as well.
For being called A Bookshop in Berlin, the bookshop really doesn’t play a part in the story after the first chapter and is used solely for contextual purposes of what started Francoise’s flight. In every other market, the book is called No Place to Lay My Head, or something akin to that, which we, as a book club, found to be a much more apt title. On a side note, when it comes to covers and titles pertaining to a book’s context, I’m sick and tired of every WWI/II book have silhouettes of Spitfires on their covers. As an aviation enthusiast, I find this incredibly misleading, but I digress. Collectively, we empathized with Francoise and had a very interesting discussion, the highlights of which I’ve detailed here.
Francoise was a Polish, Frecnch-speaking woman living in Berlin, operating a French language bookstore (with her husband) in the heart of the city in the years leading up to WWII. However, throughout the whole of the books, she never self-identifies herself Jewish (she periodically refers to being chased due to her “race”,) nor mentions her husband who fled before her and perished at Auschwitz. We had a few conclusions – particularly around whether she identified as a religious person or not (not) and if she needed to omit her husband to handle her grief (possible), but we still found both omissions rather strange.
For everything that Francoise went through, she was incredibly lucky. She was able to leave Berlin and get to France, was not rounded up by the Gestapo and managed to get out of their custody the one time she was called to the police station for an interrogation, and when forced to leave her accommodations in France, immediately found a couple not only to take her in, but support her various attempts to leave the country and get into Switzerland both monetarily and by helping her make connections. The role that luck played in Francoise story cannot be discounted in the least.
The couple who helped her also led us to question if people are inherently good. At a time when we are so polarized and retail workers and essential workers are screamed at daily by those who are having great difficultly dealing with the state of the world or have just plain forgotten how to be a decent human being, it can be very challenging to think of humanity as being generally decent, particularly are fellow man in America. We arrived at the conclusion that while we hope our fellow man will do the right thing, human beings are more likely to take the path of least resistance – the one that presents the lowest threat to their own wellbeing, even if it means going along with a regime you know to be oppressive to others even if you are not directly impacted. Which leads me to the last point I wish to bring up: When do you leave?
A few of the book club members put forth the question of why didn’t Francoise leave Germany, or even France, sooner. Hindsight is always twenty/twenty. When you want to be optimistic that things will get better, that the world can’t possibily devolve as much as it did, you don’t leave. You stay. You stand for your homeland until your homeland turns on you. When do you leave? Why don’t you leave at the first sign of trouble? Why haven’t my husband I left for Canada and his extended family in Mississauga, Ontario?
Because we have hope. We have hope that the election this year will have a different outcome than the one four years ago. We hope that we’ve been wrong about the emergence of WWIII these past years. Because we have hope that if we stay, we can change the country, and then the world for the better.
Rating: 8 out of 10