Françoise Frenkel, a woman of Polish Jewish origin, and an unabashed Francophile, gamely opened her French language bookstore in Berlin in 1921 after completing her studies at the Sorbonne. Rien où poser sa tête or, as it has now been published in English, No Place to Lay One’s Head, is her memoir, written from the safety of Switzerland, where it was first published in 1945. A copy which was rediscovered in France only decades later in a charity jumble sale found its way to French publishers Gallimard in 2015. And Frenkel’s voice, together with a moving Preface by Nobel laureate, Patrick Modiano and a dossier of documents prepared by Frédéric Maria (which includes that initial review), has now found a new audience.
I wonder what she would have made of her work being recognised by the judges of the JQ Wingate Literary Prize so many years later in 2019, of their recognition that her words, written, as Modiano says, ‘in the confusion of the moment, still suffering from shock’ are sadly still as relevant as ever.
Frenkel’s memoir charts her years in Berlin, before she is forced firstly to abandon her bookstore and then her beloved Paris ahead of the Nazi occupation. A return to her family in Poland, of course, can no longer be contemplated. She is then compelled to rely on the kindness of strangers as she tries, unsuccessfully, to find safe haven in southern France and is left with little option but to attempt an escape, on foot, across the Alps to Switzerland.
I first read Françoise Frenkel’s memoir upon its republication when I was in Paris, staying not far from where Frenkel had worked in a bookshop on the Rue Gay Lussac in 1919 following her studies at the Sorbonne. The wintry streets, almost 100 years later in December 2015, were resolutely festive notwithstanding the attacks suffered by the city only weeks earlier. Yet somehow it was not difficult to conjure up the images Frenkel painted of the post-WWI insouciance of young people rifling through the books displayed by Latin Quarter book sellers, the neighbourhood ‘rippling with youth’, ‘humming with song’.
For therein perhaps lies the power of Frenkel’s words; the immediacy and accuracy of her observations, whether describing those offering her refuge or those who would just as soon have betrayed her, allow us to individualise the everyday horrors suffered by millions in World War Two. Suddenly our general understanding of what transpired in those years is rendered particular. Frenkel’s pen describes the fraught nature of those daily decisions required to stay alive as they butt up against the absurd arbitrariness of circumstances which might so easily have led to another fate. Yet while there is often bewilderment, sometimes shock, there is no room in her memoir for self-pity.
As Frenkel’s first English translator, I must acknowledge the dedication of my publishers – both Meredith Curnow at the Vintage imprint of Penguin Random House in Australia and Adam Freudenheim and Daniel Seton of Pushkin Press in the UK – in bringing Frenkel’s work to an English-speaking audience, and their recognition of the continuing significance of Frenkel’s work. Frenkel’s is a particular voice, writing as she was in French, the second, if not third of her languages. Lyrical descriptions of people and places invite an unusual intimacy which then makes way for pragmatic, almost journalistic reportage on the practicalities of day-to-day survival. Humour makes an uneasy bedfellow of horror. And threading its way through the entirety is her persistent grace as she tries to make sense of this world that is disintegrating around her.
There is much we do not know of Frenkel’s life, and yet is it not this quasi-anonymity that allows her story to resonate so powerfully across the almost eight decades since its initial publication? Patrick Modiano writes in his Preface, ‘I prefer not to know what Françoise Frenkel’s face looked like, nor the twists and turns of her life after the war nor the date of her death. Thus, her book will always remain for me that letter from an unknown woman, a letter forgotten ‘poste restante’ for an eternity, that you’ve received in error, it seems, but that perhaps was intended for you.’ In the face of the multitudes who are today fleeing war and persecution, seeking refuge across borders, relying on the generosity of others as they, too, seek a place where they might safely lay their heads, it is difficult not to see Frenkel’s words as a letter intended for us. Invariably, she forces us to ask not only how we ourselves might have acted if faced with such imperatives, but implicit in that question, surely, is another… namely how we, both as individuals and on a national political level, should act now. Today.
For as Dr Avril Alba, Senior Lecturer in Holocaust Studies & Jewish Civilisation at the University of Sydney, commented at the launch of this translation, it is impossible, upon reading this memoir, not ‘to hear the voices of the hundreds of thousands of Frenkels who today flee over different borders for different reasons, but with the same urgency and facing in large part the same indifference that Frenkel’s memoir hauntingly conveys.’