The range of books about World War II and the Holocaust allows readers with very different interests to learn something new about what occurred before, during and after the war. Take two recent books: “A Bookshop in Berlin” by Francoise Frenkel (Atria Books) and “Citizen 865: The Hunt for Hitler’s Hidden Soldiers in America” by Debbie Cenziper (Hachette Books). The former offers a personal narration of a woman’s escape from France, while the latter portrays how members of the U.S. Department of Justice sought to expel those who had taken part in the Nazi killing machine.
“A Bookshop in Berlin” was originally published in Switzerland in September 1945 under the title “No Place to Lay One’s Head,” which serves as a far better description of the memoir than does its current title. While the Polish author did run a French bookstore in the German capital, that only plays a minor role in her tale. Frenkel, who grew up in Poland, went to school in France and wanted to own a French bookstore. A store in her native Poland seemed unlikely to succeed, so she opened one in Berlin. The store was a success until the Nazis came into power. Frenkel moved to France, but faced similar problems once the Germans conquered that country. Her memoir offers heart-warming stories of those who helped her survive. She also mentions the horrors that occurred to others who were not so lucky.
I’ve specifically not called Frenkel Jewish because, even though she speaks of what is happening to Jews, at first, she only talks about the difficulty of her origin or race. This struck me as curious and I carefully watched to see when or if she would ever say that she was Jewish. Frenkel talks around and around the issue. When the Vichy government took a census of its citizens, asking that Jews declare themselves as such, Frenkel notes she made a “truthful declaration,” but still does not say she is a Jew. It is only when she is trying to renew her visa that a reader definitively learns her status. The words, though, come from the official who declares “I hope you are not Jewish” and, after looking at her status papers, notes that he can’t give her an exit visa because foreign Jews are not being allowed to leave the country. She never explicitly calls herself Jewish: she declares she is of the “Jewish race.”
Frenkel had friends in Switzerland who were able to get her a visa so that she could live legally in that country. She attempts to escape France and is arrested, but is lucky enough not to be shipped to a camp before trying –and this time succeeding – to cross the border, which is where her book ends. None of this is actually a surprise to the reader because the preface speaks about her attempts to escape and the fact that she made it to safety in Switzerland. Little is known of what occurred to her during her later years, although there are records of her receiving compensation for some of her losses.
“A Bookshop in Berlin” lacks suspense due to the fact that readers know the author is going to survive, but Frenkel’s prose is beautiful and captures both the places and people around her, and her feelings. In the work’s preface, Patrick Modiano writes about some of the choices Frenkel made in her work, noting the records show she was married, but the memoir includes no mention of her husband. The work concludes by offering photographs and documents that support her story. In her original forward, Frankel noted the importance of bearing witness to what occurred during the war. “A Bookshop in Berlin” succeeds in that task.
While “A Bookshop in Berlin” focuses on one person’s experience, the author of “Citizen 865” has a far wider scope. The work includes two separate stories: parts one and three take place during the war and offer the experiences of two survivors – Feliks Wojick and Lucyna Stryjewska – and focus on the loss of their families and the horrors they faced. The other two sections tell of how the lawyers and historians of the U.S. Justice Department managed to discover information about a little known slaughter that took place in a European Jewish village and those – Germans and others – who took part in the massacre. When the Justice Department historians discover documents in Prague that contain a list of names of the murderers, Justice Department lawyers began the process of deporting any of those who had become U.S. citizens. One of them was Jakob Reimer, also known as Citizen 865.
What was particularly interesting is that the Justice Department couldn’t try these men for the crimes they committed in Europe. What they could do was show how they had lied when they applied to enter the U.S. or when they applied for citizenship. There was no guarantee these former Nazis would be punished in their prior homeland. In fact, they could not be deported until the Justice Department found a country willing to accept them. There were also members of Congress and refugee groups that opposed the deportations. In one case, it’s clear that the judge felt sympathy for the defendant, and questioned a trial taking place so many years after the war. The Justice Department lawyer noted that, although it had been a long time, “there are still people who remember.” He, and other members of his department, felt there should be no statute of limitations for the crimes committed by the Nazis and their accomplices.
Cenziper does an excellent job showing the different personalities of the lawyers and historians who worked for the Justice Department. What’s clear is how dedicated they were and how deeply they felt about bringing justice to those who were killed in the Holocaust. One thing that didn’t quite work for me was the lack of a direct tie between the survivors of whom Cenziper writes and the Justice Department cases. Although their experiences did illuminate what occurred during the war, I kept expecting them to be called to testify at one of the trials. In addition to the work’s contribution to Holocaust research, “Citizen 865” also offers a portrait of American justice of which we should be proud.