The Refugee Narrative of Françoise Frenkel

Before you even read the first chapter of this memoir, the book has a curious story to tell. No Place to Lay One’s Head was published in 1945 in Geneva, and is Françoise Frenkel’s own account of her wartime experience. Neither the book nor the author made a mark in 1945. The publisher eventually went out of business and the book fell out of print. It was entirely forgotten, not even a footnote in the history of narratives and personal stories to come out of the Second World War.

Then, in 2010, a copy of it was found at a flea market in Nice. This discovery of such a remarkable and erudite account of wartime survival prompted its republication and translation into languages outside the original French. The fact that Françoise Frenkel passed her post-war life in obscurity means that some detective work was required to trace her steps. There can be no author photograph because none exist. At the end of the book is a dossier of information, including a photograph of Frenkel’s last known address in Nice, the city where she lived until her death in 1975.

Even without the book’s lost-and-found publishing circumstances, the narrative is so terse, the writing so evocative, and the story so relevant that it deserves to be read by the widest readership. (It is available as No Place to Lay One’s Head, and also under the title A Bookshop in Berlin).

In 1921, Françoise Frenkel opened a French language bookshop in Berlin. During her childhood in Poland she dreamed of owning her own bookshop. She also fell in love with French language and culture during years of living in Paris as a young woman. Her bookshop at 39a Passauer Strasse was the culmination of years of dreaming. The realisation of this dream was subject to the horrors of its time and place: a Polish Jew in Berlin had a bleak future during those inter-war years.

Frenkel describes the feeling of frustration and dread as her shop becomes the subject of scrutiny: some books in her stock are on the list of banned publications, other neighbouring Jewish businesses start suffering boycotts and attacks. Frenkel laments the destruction to lives and property caused by zealous young men who have fully embraced the National Socialist ideology.

One of the key themes of the book is escape. The first escape is from Germany itself, as it becomes increasingly clear what the future holds for Frenkel. This is one of many encounters with the indifferent or hostile face of bureaucracy. Leaving behind her possessions, Frankel gets a train to Paris, where she can live a normal life for a time. By 1940 the threat comes to Paris, and Frenkel moves south.

It was in Nice that Frenkel encountered two friends whose constant help saved her life. Monsieur and Madame Marius owned a hairdressers, and had a reputation for helping refugees. Again and again, Frenkel comes back to them in desperation as accommodation falls through and authorities round up Jewish residents to be sent to camps.

One of the saddest elements of Frenkel’s book is the sense of belonging she was searching for. Leaving her native Poland, she believes that she has found a new home in Germany, then in France, but in both places she is an outsider, forced to silently bear the insults of people who are less educated, less intelligent, and less compassionate than herself.

We don’t have to look far to find contemporary stories of refugees, even in Europe. Compare the pictures on our television news to the observations in this book, and the similarities are striking: people carried all they could, including beloved pets, cars queued to leave the city, train stations were crowded with desperate passengers wanting to escape, crushing to board the train. People ran out of fuel for their cars and food for their families.

Frenkel has an eye for detail, whether profound or absurd. At one point she finds a room to rent in a “sweet little cottage” which is made unpleasant by the fact that a municipal abattoir has been built opposite and the smell wafts over on the wind. A young man trying to sleep on a train stretches his bent leg and rests it on hers, but she doesn’t move it because he is sleeping and she could tell he had been in physical pain. In Nice she would spend hours queuing for food at the shops, making sure to wear a straw hat to protect herself from the heat of the sun.

Frenkel’s first attempt to escape to the safety of Switzerland ended in heartbreak. The local man who is paid to take them across the border is unpleasant, and Frenkel’s fellow travellers are impatient with her and often leave her well behind on the road. They are all arrested, apart from the local guide, who runs away. After a night in prison she is transferred to Annecy. It is on this bus ride that she sees a hole in a barbed wire fence which she walked past the night before. In the darkness she hadn’t spotted it, but now she sees how close she was to escaping to Geneva.

Having experienced the best and worst of human nature, Frenkel reflects on how humans behave, without allowing these reflections to slow the narrative. After witnessing extreme and unnecessary cruelty against refugees she concludes that “some deep sadistic urge must lie hidden in every man, waiting to be exposed when the opportunity arises.” The shock of the events unfolding is communicated well, with one woman exclaiming “God in heaven, and these things are happening in France!” A society which was advanced and sophisticated is crumbling under everyday, casual brutality. This is contrasted by unexpected kindness, such as the way an Italian soldier from Napoli catches her at the border and should hand her over to the police, but instead protects her from discovery and lets her go unharmed. An elderly lady who helps her in the street and takes her to a café before walking off turns out to have secretly paid for her meal.

The book is not just a heart-wrenching story of survival, but it also reads like a thriller. Hiding in one city then another, in one house then another, always questioning who to trust, always plotting her escape to Switzerland, the narrative has a momentum that makes it very easy to read. Frenkel is a sympathetic, unsentimental narrator.

One of the most poignant details comes in the Dossier section at the end of the book, where there is a photograph of an original inscription by the author after the book’s 1945 publication. It is inscribed to Reverend Father Pierre Noir. After expressing gratitude, Frenkel writes, “I would be so grateful for your prayers – I seek inner peace…How great is my suffering.”

It speaks not just of the suffering refugees have to endure in their ordeal, but the ripples of grief which continue into peace time.

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