Book Review: No Place to Lay One’s Head by Françoise Frenkel
Françoise Frenkel’s memoir on surviving in German-occupied Europe begins with her stating, “I don’t know exactly when I first felt the calling to be a bookseller.” She loved the touch of leather and parchment and fabric cladding her book collection, the noise of the street that spilled into her favourite bookshop on the corner of Rue des Écoles and Boulevard Saint-Michel, and above all – the delight of discovering “a document, a rare volume, an old letter” (20) that gave her a taste of the past. Frenkel’s own rare volume was to be published in 1945, forgotten for decades, and rediscovered some seventy years later at a charity sale in France. And No Place to Lay One’s Head, translated into English by Stephanie Smee, certainly is a remarkable discovery: harrowing and beautifully written, it is both an astonishing historical account of surviving the horrors of the Second World War and a timeless story about the importance of empathy and resilience in the most difficult times.
Against all advice and despite the escalating displays of antisemitism and xenophobia in Germany, Frenkel – a Jewish woman born in Poland – sets up La Maison du Livre, the first French bookshop in Berlin, in 1921. The venture becomes a prestigious business attracting famous artists, diplomats, and poets, but the prosperous years are interspersed with increasingly alarming incidents: from unsettling questions to newspaper bans to police visits, and finally to open violent persecution that forces Frenkel to flee Germany in 1939. With no safe place to go to, Frenkel begins her desperate escape from deportation that will last until the end of war: moving from one French town to another and risking her life to cross the border, with stretched out months of loneliness and monotony in between.
Studying it now, it can be easy to see war as a clear timeline of political events – but a personal account such as Frenkel’s provides an insight into the social atmosphere preceding and surrounding the war, with all its hope, hatred, confusion, anxiety, and disbelief. About her arrival in Paris in 1939, for instance, Frenkel writes:
People’s refusal to acknowledge the looming catastrophe or to realise the gravity of the situation is something that returns throughout the memoir. Despite her personal tragedy, Frenkel retains her interest in the outward world and in other people – and indeed, bearing witness seems to be her primary goal: “It is the duty of those who have survived to bear witness to ensure the dead are not forgotten, nor humble acts of self-sacrifice left unacknowledged” (17).
Despite the terrors of oppression still fresh (Frenkel started working on Rien où poser sa tête in 1943, the same year she finally crossed the Franco-Swiss border after several unsuccessful attempts), Frenkel is exceptionally empathetic towards many of her persecutors. Her effort to understand what drives other people extends to even the most vile and violent gendarmes: “Were they just carrying out orders or acting out of a sense of shame?” (132). Did they choose to be ignorant about concentration camps to quiet their conscience? Eager to acknowledge that the two women she moves in with were hardworking and patriotic, she also observes that they suffer from “the flip side to their excessive patriotism: xenophobia” (169). To Frenkel, people are neither fundamentally good nor bad but (to echo Good Omens) fundamentally people – and, considering the atrocities that she suffers at their hands, her constant attempts to understand their motivations are little short of heroic.
No Place to Lay One’s Head by Françoise Frenkel is translated by Stephanie Smee and published in paperback by Pushkin Press on 31 January 2019.
PhD Researcher at the University of Stirling, examining the past five decades of Scottish publishing in collaboration with HarperCollins and Publishing Scotland. Graduated with an MSc in Publishing from Edinburgh Napier University and a BA in English from Queen’s University (Canada). Loves Inside Llewyn Davis, Peter Gabriel, and flat design.