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Start Reading ‘No Place To Lay One’s Head’ by Francoise Frenkel

May 30, 2017

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‘That night, I understood how I had been able to withstand the oppressive atmosphere of those last years in Berlin . . . I loved my bookstore, the way a woman loves, that is to say, truly.’

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Initially published in Geneva 1945, Frenkel’s memoir was forgotten and only discovered many years later in a second hand bookstore. It narrates with piercing detail the struggle of a Jewish woman born in Poland living in Berlin during the outbreak of World War Two, and has been revived and translated from French into English by renowned Australian book translator Stephanie Smee.

Francoise Frenkel enjoys a period of bliss when she fulfils a lifelong dream of opening a French bookstore in the heart of Berlin, discovering the joys of literature for herself and for her customers. But it’s the 1930s and amid the growing darkness of the Nazi regime, we are given a portal into the country’s descent into Nazism, racial genocide, and the beginnings of the Second World War.

This is an authentic documentation of war unfolding. Soon, there are a series of Nazi officers and Hitler Youths trawling the streets, destroying Jewish-run businesses, smashing windows, trampling displays, setting fire to synagogues.

Bitterly and full of regret, Francoise has no choice but to flee Berlin and return to Paris, leaving her bookshop behind in the murky malaise of growing catastrophe. In Paris, she witnesses the total shutdown and crippling fear of a nation under siege, and it’s not long before she’s forced out of France’s capital. Only days after her departure, Nazi Germany bombs Paris, causing ruin and killing thousands.Author photo-min

What follows is Francoise’s quest to evade the war’s trail of destruction while seeking the fate of her beloved bookstore. Europe disintegrates around her as she is compelled to flee further and further away from the destructive clutches of war. But although war touches everything, No Place to Lay One’s Head is an imitable portrait of the human spirit’s refusal to be dampened by darkness and despair.

As she flees, she learns that during war not everyone can be trusted, and the defiling Nazi ideology proliferating around Europe has turned many into monsters. She escapes numerous encounters with Nazi police officers rounding up Jews for concentration camps. Hiding spots never last long. Informants are everywhere. And for a Polish Jew, such as Francoise, there truly is no place to lay one’s head.

As expected there’s great drama in this story, but none of it is forced or contrived. It’s a memoir written with dignity, grace, and courage. Frenkel’s quest for refuge in war-torn Europe is the glimmering resonance of No Place to Lay One’s Head, as it echoes our contemporary dilemma regarding refugee policies.It instructs empathy while demonstrating resilience in the face of adversity. We see, intimately, that for Frenkel, as it is for many unlucky souls in the modern world, fleeing was never a matter of choice; fleeing was an alienating, unforgiving journey of necessity.

Francoise Frenkel was born in Poland in 1889. In 1921 she set up a French-language bookshop in Berlin. The store was fundamental to her cultural life of the city well into the 1930s when Frenkel was forced to flee after her bookshop was raided by Nazis. A life in hiding in Vichy France was no better and she made a final desperate and successful attempt to reach Switzerland, where this memoir was eventually published in 1945. It was rediscovered in an attic in 2010 and published again by Gallimard in France in October 2015. This is the first English-language edition.

Stephanie Smee is a translator into English of all things literary and French. Her other languages include German, Italian, and Swedish.

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