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My understanding of the Holocaust has been shaped enormously by the teachers, cousins, friends, and others from Europe who have been part of my life and have shared their experiences before and after World War II.
I think about this because we are in the final stages of this historical moment. Within a decade, there will be very few people who can recall their experiences during the Nazi era. We will need their stories, and nobody will be there to tell them.
It is for this reason that I am especially grateful for the wealth of memoirs that many survivors have left behind. And what encourages me is that there are still hundreds of such works that we have yet to encounter because they have not been translated into English. Such is the case with two extraordinary books newly translated from French.
Françoise Frenkel, the author of “A Bookshop in Berlin,” was born in Poland in 1889. At a young age she fell in love with French culture and studied at the Sorbonne. She eventually moved to Berlin, where she opened the city’s first French language bookstore, Le Maison du Livre, in 1921 (a rather remarkable feat, given that Germany and France had been at war just three years earlier). She ran the shop until 1939, when it had become abundantly clear that it was time to leave.
Her memoir’s original French title translates to “No Place to Lay One’s Head,” and it’s a particularly fitting one, as Frenkel’s existence after leaving Berlin became a life on the run. She moved first to Paris, and then to southern France after the Nazi invasion. Depending heavily on the kindness of strangers, she spent two years moving from place to place, successfully evading capture until she was betrayed by a guide during an attempt to enter Switzerland.
The book, written after her second attempt to cross illegally into Switzerland succeeded, has an interesting history. It was published in 1943, and it was completely forgotten until a copy was found in a French attic in 2010, leading to its republication. It has now been ably translated into English, along with a foreword by Nobel laureate Patrick Modiano.
Frenkel composed her memoir as Europe’s Jews were still being slaughtered, while Moishe Rozenbaumas was compelled to write “The Odyssey of an Apple Thief” as an elderly man decades later, “so that my grandchildren and the children of my grandchildren will have access to their own history in order that we don’t forget what happened to our people.”
Most of Rozenbaumas’ youth was spent in the Lithuanian shtetl of Telz, which was well known as a center of Jewish learning, and he offers a superb portrayal of the town. Moishe’s life changed enormously when his father left for Paris, following the collapse of his clothing business. The plans were for him to send for his family, but he seems to have barely tried. This left Moishe as the family’s chief breadwinner at the age of 11.
Following the Nazi invasion of Lithuania, Rozenbaumas attempted unsuccesfully to convince his mother and brothers to flee eastward with him (they would eventually all be shot to death). Still in his teens, he left on his bicycle, crossing into Latvia and then the Soviet Union. He eventually made his way on freighters along the Caspian Sea to Soviet Asia. He soon became a soldier in the Red Army and was wounded multiple times in harrowing battles against Germany.
He returned to Lithuania after the war, first as part of a unit interrogating Lithuanians who had collaborated with the Nazis (including a young man who had killed one of Rozenbaumas’ brothers). He was then reunited in Vilnius with a woman he had known well in Telz, and they soon married.
Although once an eager member of the Communist Party, Rozenbaumas soured on the Soviet Union, and in 1956 he and his family managed to defect first to Poland and then to France. He was reunited with his father (about whom he remained ambivalent) and entered the clothing business.
Rozenbaumas is a particularly introspective narrator. He is haunted by his inability to save his family in Telz, and he interrupts the narrative to lament at length his longtime inability to awaken to what was wrong in the Soviet Union.
The book concludes unconventionally with a chapter devoted to religious thought. Drawing heavily from Dutch philosopher Spinoza, Rozenbaumas reflects on his turning toward Judaism later in life — an unexpected outcome given his earlier atheism and the difficulty that many Holocaust survivors had in accepting a deity who would allow such a cataclysm to occur.
Jonathan Layton’s translation from French is twice removed from its source, as Rozenbaumas originally wrote his autobiography in Yiddish, and it was lovingly translated into French by his daughter Isabelle in a process that she details in her introduction. May such translations across language, time and place continue, keeping these important voices alive.