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Powerful piece of bric-à-brac

Madeleine Kingsley praises a found-by-chance memoir

    Francoise Frenkel’s memoir offers a reminder never to disdain jumble. It was at a bric-à-brac sale in 2010 that her remarkable 1945 account of Nazi persecution in Southern France resurfaced. It is not at all the book that Frenkel would have imagined writing in 1930s Berlin, where she opened the first-ever, specialist French-language bookstore.

    Against all commercial odds, this Polish-born, French-educated Jewish intellectual created a cultural hub where such authors as Gide, Colette and Maurois came to talk, or to read from their latest works. “I loved my bookstore,” writes Frenkel, “the way a woman loves, that is to say, truly.”

    Her book begins while she is still living her dream, destroyed over a matter of months by the Brownshirts. Frenkel left it too late to sell the store and, after Kristallnacht, simply walked away having bid her beloved books goodbye: “I went from shelf to shelf, tenderly stroking the spines of the books… I leaned over the limited editions. How many times had I been too attached, refusing to sell one or another of them.”

    Frenkel’s refined life of the mind gave way to terror as she remained — barely — one step ahead of the occupying forces, fleeing from Paris, to Vichy, Avignon and on to Nice and the Midi countryside. Her tale, in which she set down these personal and perilous events while they were still vividly raw, packs great power. But her chronicle of how “horror made itself at home in everyday life” is also more cruelly surreal for being played out in places now synonymous with hedonistic holidays — the cerulean-blue Med, the Niçoise flower market and a Gobelin-tapestried mountain château.

    Frenkel’s stay, holed up in a “Noah’s Ark” of a hotel along with other, assorted Jewish refugees, was a daily battle for food and the wherewithal to cook it. Damned, from March 1942, if she registered her race, and damned if she did not, Frenkel struggled daily with identity papers, indifferent or openly hostile bureaucracy and the improbable hope of an entry visa to Switzerland.

    Returning from shopping one day, she stumbled upon Jews being rounded up for a transport to Drancy. A fleeting desire for solidarity — to join her people — was overcome by a fierce instinct for self-preservation. “The bitterness of this truth”, she writes, “weighs on me still and will to the end of my days.”

    She slipped into a hairdressing salon run by a friendly Corsican woman who took her into hiding at great personal risk. The kindness of strangers who shield and support her makes Frenkel’s suffering just about bearable.

    A lady aristocrat in Avignon serves her cider from an ancient papal goblet, said to protect one from the enemy. Following a failed attempt to enter Switzerland, and a spell in jail, she recovers in a convent, cared for by Sister Ange, “whose face had become the very manifestation of welcome.” And, at last, there’s the soldier who shoots into the air and not at Frenkel, so facilitating her illegal crossing into Switzerland.


    Madeleine Kingsley is a freelance writer