Compiled by Bruce Rickard
The author, Thomas Newkirk, writes about ‘owning the passages that speak to us.’ He says,
My Book Notes are just that, ‘owning the passages that speak to me.’ By recording the words and sentences that capture my attention I am ensuring that they are not lost to me and will continue to challenge and inspire.
My Book Notes are not a summary of the text. I am not attempting to condense what the writer is wanting to communicate, nor am I providing an outline.
My Book Notes are not a review of the text. I am not analysing what has been written, nor am I making comment.
I’m pleased to share with you My Book Notes and hope you might be motivated to consider reading the books for yourself. All the books listed have contributed to my thinking and enjoyment so come with my tick of approval.
A Bookshop in Berlin
Themes: World War II, Nazis, Jews, Bookshop, Suffering, Survival, Friendship
Date Read: November 2020
Rating: ♥ ♥ ♥
My Book Notes:
When I think of the last tumultuous years of my time in Berlin, I see once again a series of stupefying events: the first silent parades of the future Brownshirts; the trial that followed the burning of the Reichstag, typical of National Socialist methods; the rapid transformation of German children into the restless larvae of the Hitler Youth; the masculine rhythm of the blond, blue-eyed girls whose aggressive marching made windowpanes rattle, causing books in window displays to tremble in a somber foreshadowing, the visit of that German mother who wept for her child who had just been congratulated and held up as an example before his whole class because he had denounced her and her anti-Nazi opinions; that other mother, this one Jewish, her heart overflowing with sorrow, who told me her boy, son of a Christian father, had run onto her in the street in the company of his Hitler-following friends, and had pretended not to recognize her; the mounting desolation of all mothers faced with the loss of their children as they were wrenched from the family home; the influence of block wardens who intervened in the lives of tenants, denouncing them before the people’s courts, dislocating the bonds of marriage, friendship, affection, and love; people stripped first of their professions and positions, then of their wealth, and finally of their civil and human rights; the flight of the persecuted to the borders; the burials of those desperate souls who had thrown themselves under trains or out of windows; the permanent disappearances in concentration camps; the return, after long absences, of customers – such elegant and enlightened minds – heads shorn like convicts, anxious, with faraway expressions and trembling hands. How they had aged in matter of months!
Oh, the memory of the emergence of a leader with the face of an automaton, a face so deeply marked by hate and pride, dead to all feelings of love, friendship, goodness, or pity…
And clustered around this leader with his hysterical voice, a captive crown capable of any violence, any murderous act!
What an image, the birth of this monstrous and ever-growing human termite colony spreading quickly through the country with a sinister grinding of metal; a colony with the potential for incalculable collective strength.
Jews from all the occupied countries wandered around, disorientated, purposeless, and without hope, in an ever-increasing state of anxiety and agitation.
It was the lack of anything to do that weighed most heavily, draining every ounce of energy, any resistance.
Shortly afterward, a new measure was instituted: Jewish children were to be removed from their parents. They were thrown into trucks, their papers torn up on the spot. The authorities branded them with an identification number.
Tragic scenes accompanied the implementation of this measure. Mothers cut their wrists; others threw themselves under the buses just as they pulled away with their tragic cargo. In one hotel on the Cote d’Azur, a woman who had escaped the roundups 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.
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 defenseless human beings, for them to carry out the task with a peculiar and savage bitterness resembling joy.
Were they just carrying out orders or acting out of a sense of shame? One heard them claiming that the procedures were useful and necessary since it was one of the conditions of collaboration with the Germans, and France’s salvation depended on that collaboration.
I was left all alone.
I had bought a book with me and I tried to read. But I could not focus my thoughts. I was surrounded by a muffled silence, interrupted by the last of the birdsong and the humming of insects. I listened, and watched night descend over the forest; the last rays of sunshine painted the tops of the trees gold; the sound of voices floated over from distant houses; little by little, the birdsong faded away.
Night came and enveloped me like a shroud. The silence was broken by soft noises, scarcely perceptible: leaves, twigs, pinecones dropping from the trees. A bird brushed past a branch with its wing, an insect climbed the trunk of a tree and fell back to the ground. The wind seemed to whisper in the foliage. All these noises took on sinister implications. The barking of a dog on some unknown farm sounded almost like the voice of a friend.
Suddenly, I was struck by the cold and I huddled under my coat and blankets. I tried to sleep, but to no avail. I tried to conjure up a comforting thought. But what? My beloved mother was far far away; I had had no news of her or any of my family for two years; the whole world was stained by the blood of war. Everywhere, loss and despair.
Before me, a magnificent view: here, bare, and rocks; over there, verdant mountains, vast fields of flowers, olive trees, palms, lemon and orange trees; the whole floral spread of the south of France. My God, how beautiful it was.
The fanciful curves of the roads cutting through the fields, meadows, and countryside looked like white ribbons designed to accentuate the beauty of the scenery.
The air rising off the fields, filled my lungs, the sun warmed me through once more with its gentle, autumnal rays.
To whom God will His favors show
Shall far into the world be sent….
At the time of the persecution, Madame Lucienne had initially been upset, for she was fundamentally a good person. But the Jewish history lessons she listened to on the radio, the “age-old crimes” of these people, had led her to admit that the measures in question, while troublesome, were probably necessary. We had fallen out over this point of view.
Appreciating how she must have struggled with her own sense of discipline and her beliefs; I was all the more touched by the sacrifice she was making on my behalf.
I was paralysed in a state of agonising anxiety, about my mother and the rest of my family, not having had any news. Cooped up, with no possibility of going out, unable to exercise, and without any fresh air, I suffered such insomnia that my nervous strain was becoming unbearable.
The railroads, the highways, every form of traffic was controlled by the German authorities and the French police who were carrying out their orders. At the entrance and exit to railway stations, in front of ticket counters, on platforms, at the main bus stations, at the toll barriers on the outskirts of town, travelers were interrogated by gendarmes, and their papers were inspected. On the trains, German police in civilian clothes would pounce on people, sometimes more than once on the same journey. On the roads, every vehicle was pulled over, from expensive cars to carts pulled by donkeys. All foreigners were forbidden to leave their home unless armed with a safe-conduct pass. That document was not issued to foreigners of Jewish race, and yet they had to risk escape, whatever the cost; it was the only path to salvation! It was an intractable dilemma.
Numerous French families were offering shelter. A comprehensive organization sprang up with cells in every town, its own covert communications, messengers, information networks, and even luggage transportation services!
One could write volumes about the courage, the generosity, the fearlessness of those families who offered assistance to fugitives in every département and even in Occupied France, putting their lives at risk. It was not unusual for generous-spirited French citizens unhesitatingly to lend their identity papers to refugees, allowing them to travel without a safe-conduct pass.
News of accidents, thefts, blackmail, arrests, deportations, and failed escape attempts spread rapidly throughout the region.
Consequently, the number of escapes fell very quickly. Exhausted by the hardships they were enduring and weakened by their long confinement and the resulting inertia, the refugees had been sapped of their energy. Escape felt like a considerable undertaking with all-too-unpredictable results. Resigned, they ended up passively waiting their fate, abandoning their plans and at the same time, all hope.
If somebody had an entry visa for another country, there would never be any hesitation about setting off.
Once again, Providence came to my aid. Fate seemed determined to lead me to salvation.
One of the Mariuses’ regulars mentioned in conversation that he was going to spend the Christmas holiday period on his property in the Isere. Monsieur Marius immediately devised a plan to put me in touch with him. He knew his client to have decent French values and he spoke frankly of my situation.
I was not the slightest bit convinced of the chances of our expedition’s success under such leadership. It is a curious thing that, despite being acutely aware of the serious error we were about to make by placing ourselves into the care of this man, I allowed myself to do it!
I have often asked myself why I agreed to follow this smuggler who filled me with such loathing and mistrust. I think 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.
We tried to focus on our plight. But all we could say to each other was so pointless and gloomy that we ended up silent.
I tried to put my thoughts in some sort of order and to think what last-ditch attempt might save me. The future appeared to offer little hope.
In Nice, Grenoble, and in my encounters with other fugitives, I had often heard mentioned the name Father F………, from Annecy.
Like so many distraught refugees seeking assistance and comfort, I found my way to him upon my release. The house was deserted. I knocked at the door at the end of the corridor.
The priest came to open it himself. He was standing against the light and I could only make out his tall silhouette. He took me into a large room full of books and bade me sit down at a table laden with papers and [packages of every size. Some were not tied up and I spotted coffee, rice, sugar, tea… Every chair was covered in large parcels. And in order to sit down himself, the priest had to lift one of them off. He sat down at this desk opposite me and only then did I see him in the full light of day.
His face, his features, wore a look of infinite peace. Never have I seen such an open expression. You immediately felt that he trusted you. He radiated goodness and his presence was as reassuring as a beautiful sunny morning on a peacetime day.
The Mother Superior greeted me with kindness. She told me the convent was caring for several children, orphans whose parents had been deported. They were to be taken to Switzerland by a Carmelite sister any day now.
“They never laugh,” she sighed.
For months and months now, so many miserable, hunted souls had found a moment’s respite at the convent.
The Mother Superior lifted her gaze to the ivory Christ and was silent. She was praying.
The priest would often come to ask after me at the convent, the ideal retreat to which he had brought me just as my resistance was failing.
Sometimes he would talk to me about his parishioners – the sick, a baptism, somebody dying – and always with the same care and affection. He never overlooked anybody and would openly receive fugitives setting them on the path to the border himself or entrusting them to the care of country folk who took on that perilous task without hesitation. He could always find French people ready to help the persecuted, and houses in which to shelter them.
He was neither cautious nor measured in the performance of his charitable works, throwing himself boldly, head held high, into the danger he must have known existed.
Did he believe, in his profound faith, that Providence would not desert him in the fulfilment of his Christian duty? Or was he quite simply embracing his fate, placing himself in God’s hands and humbly accepting His decision in advance?
In the history of France in the years of the occupation, the pages devoted to Savoie will count among the most proud and most glorious.
For the most beautiful thing in that most beautiful of landscapes – was the attitude of the Savoyard people.
The whole region maintained its independent spirit and continued to offer assistance and hospitality to those pouring in, seeking refuge in ever greater numbers.
‘Stand up, madame, you are not injured. I saw the Italian shoot into the air,’ said the soldier in French as he helped me to my feet.
‘Where am I?’
‘Come, now! You are in Switzerland, aren’t you?’
I was in Switzerland, I was saved!
I started to walk, while trying to staunch the blood that was flowing freely from my legs and hands. At the same time, I tried to rearrange my ripped clothes.
All at once, the tension drained from me.
I was crying…. Quietly, the tears I had for so long held back started to flow… they felt like a hot spring flooding my face. I swallowed those bitter tears and, as I wept, I felt a crushing weight lift.
The Swiss soldier walked discreetly on ahead of me, carrying the pitiable bundle of belongings that had been my companion on my successive attempts to flee. In it was everything I had taken with me from France, save my grieving and deathly tired heart…