Book Review: No Place to Lay One’s Head by Françoise Frenkel

“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.  (…) I dedicate this book to the MEN AND WOMEN OF GOODWILL who, generously, with unfailing courage, opposed the will to violence and resisted to the end.”

Françoise Frenkel, No Place to Lay One’s Head, 2019, Pushkin Press

If you love literature and, in particular, books by Patrick Modiano, you will love this compelling beautifully written memoir, No Place to Lay One’s Head (Rien ou poser sa tete) by a Polish-Jewish enigmatic writer, Françoise Frenkel (1889-1975) with a preface by Patrick Modiano.

Françoise (Frymeta Ideas) Frenkel was born in 1889 near Lodz (now Poland) into a Jewish-Polish family. In 1921 together with her husband, Simon Raichenstein, she set up the first French bookshop in Berlin, La Maison du Livre located at 39 Passauer Strasse which quickly became a place of cultural meetings, attracting famous artists, writers and poets. Among the visitors to Françoise’s bookshop were Claude Anet, Madame Colette, Andre Gide, Duhamel and others. She had assumed sole responsibility for the bookshop from 1933, following her husband’s departure for Paris among increasing antisemitism and xenophobia in Germany of the 1930s.

No Place to Lay One s Head by Francoise Frenkel
No Place to Lay One s Head by Francoise Frenkel

Françoise left Berlin for Paris in July 1939, shortly before the outbreak of the Second World War. In the following years, she desperately tried to escape deportation, moving from one place to another, relying on people of goodwill, as she called them in the dedication to her book. In that sense, No Place to Lay One’s Head constitutes not only a haunting historic account of the survival of a remarkable individual during the horrors of the Second World War but it also depicts the French society in a very unsettling manner with all shades of complexity but with enormous empathy. Through her actions, Françoise shows a tremendous level of understanding for her fellow human beings, even for the ones who show no compassion towards her. Her ability to look at the world from the perspective of someone else, even during the times of the worst atrocities imaginable is a testament to the strength of human spirit.

Finally, Françoise managed to reach Switzerland in 1943 where she started working on her book, No Place to Lay One’s Head which was then published by a Swiss publisher in September 1945.

Françoise moved to Nice in 1945 where she died in 1975. Her husband, Simon Raichenstein, perished in Auschwitz in August 1942. Françoise never mentioned him in her book. It might be due to the enormous suffering and her “deadly tired heart” as she wrote in the last line of her book.

Frenkel’s memoir was forgotten for almost seventy years. The 1945 edition was found in Nice around 2010 in an Emmaus Companions charity jumble sale.  As Patrick Modiano writes in the preface to the book “what makes this book unique is that we cannot precisely identify its author”. There are scarce pieces of information about Françoise’s life after the war. There is no preserved picture of Françoise. No Place to Lay One’s Head is the only known book she wrote and although French was not her mother tongue, she wrote it in French.  

Frenkel’s writing style is somehow factual and, at times, detached. The feelings of sadness, nostalgia and the importance of human resilience come through the pages of her book, carrying the message of the antediluvian human courage when one is faced with the evil.

Reading this book feels as if we were walking along Françoise but we are not the participants in her story; we are not allowed to have our own say; we are not allowed to intervene. We are merely the observers of her journey; we are the listeners to her words.

Patrick Modiano expressed it in the best way:

“That curious impression I had upon reading No Place to Lay One’s Head was also the effect of hearing the voice of somebody whose face one can’t quite make out in the half-light and who is recounting an episode from their life. And that reminded me of the overnight trains of my youth, [in] the seated compartments which used to create a great sense of intimacy between passengers, and where somebody, under the night light, would end up confiding in you or even confessing  to you (…). It was the feeling that you would no doubt never see each other again which lent weight to this abrupt intimacy. Brief encounters. You retain a suspended memory of them. The memory of somebody who didn’t have time to tell you everything. The same can be said about Françoise’s Frenkel’s book, written seventy years ago but in the confusion of the moment, still suffering from shock.”

Forward by Modiano, P. in Frenkel, F., No Place to Lay One’s Head, 2019, Pushkin Press

No Place to Lay One’s Head is also, in some sense, an ode to the literature and the importance of books in one’s life. Frenkel’s first job was in a Parisian bookshop and her love for the literary world is shown from the first sentences of her memoir:

“I don’t know exactly when I first felt the calling to be a bookseller. As a very young girl, I could spend hours leafing through a picture book or a large illustrated tome. My favourite present were books (…). For my sixteenth birthday, my parents allowed me to order my own bookcase. (…) I was able to admire my classics in the publishers’ beautiful bindings, and the modern, contemporary authors whose bindings I would lovingly choose myself.”

Frenkel, F., No Place to Lay One’s Head, 2019, Pushkin Press, p. 19

The paragraph below offers a deeper look into the way Françoise connected with books, the way she thought and what a profound and compassionate observer of human behaviour she was:

“(…) I worked in the afternoons at a bookstore in Rue Gay-Lussac. Over time I grew to know my bookish clientele. I would try to fathom their desires, understand their tastes, their beliefs and their leanings (…). (…) after observing the way a book was held, almost tenderly, the way pages were delicately turned and reverently read or hastily and thoughtlessly leafed through, the book then put back on the table (…). I came to be able to see into a character, a spirit, a state of mind. I would place the book I considered appropriate down close to a reader – discretely, (…), so they could not feel it had been suggested to them. I started to grow fond of my customers. When they left the shop, I found myself walking with them a little way in my imagination. I wondered about the impact the book they had taken would have on them; then, I would impatiently await their return to hear their thoughts.”  

Frenkel, F., No Place to Lay One’s Head, 2019, Pushkin Press, p. 22

As Françoise wrote in the forward to her book:

“in my thoughts (…) are those (…) friends who took my hand just as I felt myself sinking, and the bright smile of my friend Lie, who helped me to continue to live.”

Therefore, my dear reader, whoever you are, I would encourage you to accompany Françoise through her journey that she took seventy years ago, to take her hand, do not let her sink and help her to continue to live in your heart.

If you have an opportunity to live Françoise’s experience by reading her memoir, please do it. I assure you – your heart will be touched, your soul will weep, your mind will learn.

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