In 1921, Françoise Frenkel, a Jewish woman from Poland, opens La Maison du Livre, Berlin’s first French bookshop. Françoise’s dream shatters on Kristallnacht in November 1938, as hundreds of Jewish shops and businesses are destroyed. When the city is bombed, she seeks refuge across southern France and survives at the heroic hands of strangers risking their lives to protect her.
... [a] taut, eloquent memoir of wartime survival ... Reflecting on how little is known about Frenkel’s life beyond the confines of this, apparently her only book, Mr. Modiano likens reading it to the experience of becoming privy to an intimate confession from a stranger met by chance, someone whose secrets you now share but whose identity remains essentially anonymous. This enigmatic quality combines with the story’s own underlying sense of urgency to propel the reader forward. Composed in the immediate aftermath of her arrival in Switzerland, Frenkel’s suspense-filled saga spills out with absolute clarity as she details her flight’s every hazardous step and misguided stop ... Frenkel artfully sketches a range of characters she encountered along the way ... We can only remain grateful to the constellation of luck and chance that allowed, first, Frenkel’s survival, and now, the recovery of her exceptional book.
Frenkel’s chronological first-person narration details narrow escapes, serendipitous respites, and acts of unbelievable cruelty, indifference, bravery, and kindness. Her story is compelling not only because it sheds light on a unique aspect of WWII (foreign nationals trapped in France during the German occupation) but due to the circumstances of its publication. Originally published in France in 1945 under the title No Place to Lay One’s Head, the book remained largely forgotten until a copy surfaced in southern France in 2010, leading to this English-language release. Insightful, sympathetic, suspenseful, and eventually triumphant, this memoir is a worthy addition to the WWII canon.
There’s a fair bit Frenkel doesn’t tell us in this extraordinary book ... has many echoes of Kafka, and is a reminder of the terrible truth he caught: that if you want to torture a human soul, you can do an awful lot with bits of paper ... Frenkel’s attempts to escape over the border to Switzerland, from December 1942, are as gripping as any thriller ... a stark and chilling account of what happens when a society turns rotten and the rot spreads. It is all the more shocking because the tone is so matter-of-fact. People spread hate as they eat their favourite snacks ... a strangely hypnotic demonstration of what the German-Jewish philosopher Hannah Arendt called the 'banality of evil': a world where life and death are measured out in rubber stamps ... There’s a singing simplicity to the writing, but also the odd note that feels slightly stilted, with widespread use of phrases like 'not without'. It’s hard to know if this is the translation or the original. There are also a lot of exclamation marks ... What we do know is that we owe [Frenkel] a huge debt of gratitude. In sharing her bitter taste of bitter history, she has shown us the worst of humanity — but also the best.