Translated by Stephanie Smee
Reviewed by Harriet
When I was first offered this book for review, I turned it down, for reasons that are now not clear to me. Then I had second thoughts and how glad I am that I did. If I say it’s my best read for 2019 that’s not saying much, but I have no hesitation in saying it will remain high on the list for the rest of the year.
Francoise Frenkel was born in Poland in 1889. As a young woman she moved to Paris, where she studied and later married. In 1921 the couple moved to Berlin where they set up the first French language bookshop, which became very successful. At some point her husband left Berlin (he does not appear in her book) and she continued to run the shop on her own until 1939, when she moved back to Paris. Following the Occupation, and given her Jewish nationality, she fled to the south of France and spent several years moving from place to place, always in hiding from the threat of imprisonment and probable deportation to a concentration camp. Her one desire became the possibility of escaping to neutral Switzerland, but it took several attempts before she finally succeeded. She wrote her story ‘on the banks of Lake Lucerne, 1943-1944’, and dedicated it to ‘the MEN AND WOMEN OF GOODWILL who, generously, with unfailing courage, opposed the will to violence and resisted to the end’. Little is known of her later life, except that she returned to France and lived in Nice, where she died in 1975.
This is a truly remarkable book, and Frenkel was undoubtedly a remarkable woman. But in addition to her bravery and endurance in frequently appalling situations, what the book illuminates most clearly is the attitudes of the French people living under German occupation. The part of France where Frenkel spent the major part of the war years was the area known as Vichy France, where the French government had its administrative capital. Under its leader Marshall Petain, this government actively collaborated with Germany, sending undesirables (Jews, homosexuals, gypsies and others) to internment camps in France and often from there on to camps in Germany. In this political climate, to aid anyone under threat of deportation was a crime in itself severely punishable, so that even sympathisers were unwilling to aid such people. Even so, there were people with high ideals who were willing to act to aid fugitives, and Frankel was fortunate enough to encounter a couple without whom she would undoubtedly not have survived.
Monsieur and Madame Marius were originally from Corsica, but lived in Nice where they ran a hairdressing salon. When a spate of new arrests started to happen, they offered Frankel a place to lay her head.
Monsieur Marius was an idealist who dreamed of peace and universal brotherhood. He loved to talk for hours about humanitarian issues. Both husband and wife were sensitive to the misery and sorrows of others, were always in agreement and were constantly ready to offer help to all who were suffering.
They tried to place her in more secure lodgings, but the owners were generally too afraid of being punished themselves to offer her any secure resting place. Thus she was constantly in hiding and on the run.
Frankel’s main objective was to escape from France. In order to achieve this she had to travel to the area of France closest and most accessible to the Swiss border. She had friends in Switzerland who were able to send her a Swiss visa, but to reach the border was an enormous challenge. Her first attempt got her within yards of the barbed wire fence which she would have to have got through, and she only got this far by walking through snow in her stockinged feet, having been abandoned by an unreliable guide. But she was apprehended before she was able to make the crossing and ended up in prison for several months.Finally, with the help of a lawyer, she was able to secure her release, but it took one more failed attempt before she actually managed to achieve her objective.
Amazingly, a copy of No Place to Lay One’s Head was discovered in a charity shop in the south of France in 2010 – although it had been published in 1945 it had been completely lost and forgotten. Its discovery is a great blessing as it sheds hugely important light on the tragic events in which so many people lost their lives. That Frankel survived is partly owning to her own resilience, to the fact that she had friends who were able to support her by sending funds and arranging visas, and to the incredibly brave and humane individuals who were willing to put their own lives on the line by offering her shelter, help and support. The book truly does illuminate the terrible divide in the French people as a result of occupation: the shockingly inhumane behaviour of those who collaborated and the actions of the wonderfully warm, caring and concerned people who deplored the violence and cruelty. The publication date seems timely, serving as a reminder of the dangers of the hard right, with its incitement to racial hatred, which is even now facing both Britain and the US. I raced though the book in a couple of sessions – it’s extremely moving and as enthralling as a thriller, and should undoubtedly become a classic.
Harriet is one of the editors of Shiny New Books
Francoise Frenkel, No Place to Lay One’s Head, trans. Stephanie Smee (Pushkin Press, 2019), 978-1782274002, 304pp., paperback.BUY at Blackwell’s via our affiliate link (free UK P&P)