Posted by: Lisa Hill | May 10, 2017

No Place to Lay One’s Head, by Françoise Frenkel, translated by Stephanie Smee

It’s no coincidence that I’m reading this book: Series 6 of Un Village Français has just become available, and I am binge-watching Series 1-5 before we watch the very last of the series.  This brilliant French TV program interrogates the period when France was under Occupation, and the village of Villeneuve is right on the border with collaborationist Vichy France.  It’s a series which defies easy judgements, and as Wikipedia says:

Both main and supporting characters’ individual loyalties, friendships, morals, and family ties are routinely put to the test as a result of greed, hunger, violence, anti-Semitism, power struggles, and unseen events occurring during World War II as the village’s resources and manpower are increasingly diverted towards supporting the German war effort.

The very interesting aspect of recent French efforts to deal with this difficult part of their history, is that it is being said that one of the reasons for the defeat of Marine Le Pen in the  French presidential election is that many French people feel distaste for her far-right political party, the French National Front,  because it is tainted by Holocaust denial and its support for anti-Semitic activities in Vichy France.  Events that took place more than half a century ago still resonate…

No Place to Lay One’s Head is a memoir of a Polish Jew caught in Vichy France when the Germans were rounding up the Jews for deportation to the death camps.  Born in Poland, Françoise Frenkel had been a bookseller in Berlin, running a very successful French-language bookshop with a notable clientele.  But as things became more and more impossible under the Nazis, she had to leave it all behind and flee to Paris, and from there she had to keep moving from place to place in order to avoid capture.

As in the TV series, we see the honour and resolve of the French people tested as more and more Jewish people need their help.  There is a moment in Un Village Français when Sarah, a secular Jew, confronts the Mayor, Daniel Larcher with the unpalatable truth: that if the collaboration were only supported by awful people it would fail, but it is accepted by the townsfolk because he, widely liked and respected, supports it and tries to make it work in the interests of peace.  Well, in Vichy France there were those who would easily denounce Frenkel, and those who risked their own safety to provide a hiding place, and there were also those who did not like the collaboration but went along with it for the sake of peace.  Reading a memoir like this makes each of us wonder what we might have done in the same situation.

No Place to Lay One’s Head is a calm, reflective work, written in 1943 shortly after Frenkel had illegally crossed the border into neutral Switzerland.  It was first published in September 1945 and then it slipped into obscurity.  It has only recently been rediscovered and published in English translation.  But Frenkel is no Irene Nemirovsky – her style is entirely different.  Nemirovsky – who was murdered by the Nazis in Auschwitz – was a successful novelist before the war and became internationally famous when her Suite Française was discovered by her daughters in 1998 and published posthumously in 2004.  But Frenkel was not a professional writer, and she was not writing fiction in ignorance of what was about to happen.  Her story is written out of the bitter refugee experience, but it is understated and singularly unemotional as if she was repressing her feelings while recording the facts of her experience.  Research has shown that Frenkel’s husband was deported from Drancy and murdered at Auschwitz in 1942 but she never mentions him, not even when describing the good times in Berlin when he ran the bookshop with her.  She had family in Poland too, but she mentions them only to say that her despair knew no bounds.  She meets up with cousins briefly in Vichy but loses touch with them when they return to Belgium after the armistice, and we hear no more about them.  Of her friends in Berlin she says next to nothing as well, yet we see as the memoir progresses that she makes friends while on the run and cares about these people enough to keep an eye on their survival.  The dossier and chronology at the back of the book show that she disappeared into obscurity after the war with nothing much known about her until her death in 1975.  One can only hope that she found peace in her latter years.

From Paris Frenkel made her way to the town of Avignon and was charmed by its sleepy peacefulness.   But the reality of war is that food is short, transport is in chaos, and the prospect of receiving a letter at the post office becomes a beacon of hope:

The post office served not only as the major form of contact with the world, the miraculous invention that channelled the voice of somebody who had disappeared, an appeal, a response, it also served to fill the overwhelming hours of emptiness.  It replaced the solitude with vague hope and created a form of human solidarity among those gathered at the counter. […]

The loneliness of those weeks was a dreadful burden evident on faces at the station, at the post office, on park benches, on café terraces, everywhere. (p.59)

Before long, peaceful Avignon is full of soldiers – demoralised wounded and demobbed French soldiers, and German officers strutting through the streets.  Queuing for food begins, and the endless checking of identity papers takes on a macabre significance.  Travel is prohibited without a safe-conduct pass, and these are denied to foreigners like Frenkel.  Some circumvent these restrictions with marriages of convenience, and Frenkel gets round it with the help of French friends and sets off for Nice.  At this time (1940)  the Germans are in the ascendant and all the news is bad as they occupy one country after another.   Guests at the hotel discuss the situation with varying degrees of acceptance and sometimes very little sensitivity to the refugees among them.

As for the refugees, they did not participate in discussions.  Offended by these indirect attacks, they would confer with each other about the possibility of a change of hotel and atmosphere; but politics was being discussed everywhere, and equally vehemently.

When they thought of the persecution rife in so many other countries, their own lives seemed almost enviable, and they would fall silent.

Pride was no longer appropriate. It was an inaccessible luxury, even for the French at that time.  (p.81)

But persecution pursues Frenkel as it pursued other Jewish people throughout Vichy France.  Things become more and more difficult, and hiding in confined spaces made me realise afresh how disciplined people like Anne Frank had to be to live in confined silence for months and years on end.  The story of Frenkel’s eventual escape over the border after successive attempts is heart-stopping, but it ends abruptly with these words:

The Swiss soldier walked on ahead of me, unobtrusive, carrying the pitiable bundle of belongings that had been my companion on my successive attempts to flee.  In it was everything I had taken with me from France, save my grieving and deathly tired heart. (p.253)

Given the current refugee crisis around the world, the publication of this book is timely indeed.

Author: Françoise Frenkel
Title: No Place to Lay One’s Head (Rien ou poser sa tête)
Translated by Stephanie Smee
Foreword by Patrick Modiano
Publisher: Vintage Books (Penguin Random House Australia), 2017
ISBN: 9780143784111
Review copy courtesy of Penguin Random House

Available from Fishpond: No Place to Lay One’s Head: With a Preface from Patrick Modiano

 


Responses

  1. Gosh, this is a new one to me, but it sounds like an excellent read. Thanks for flagging it up!

    • I think it’s going to be widely available in the UK and elsewhere.

  2. The book sounds great – but so does the TV series. How can Un Village Francais be accessed?

    • In Australia, I’ve bought mine from Readings and from JB HiFi, but it’s also available at Fishpond. I am sure it would be available overseas too, just be careful to buy the right DVD for your region. (Ours is region 4).

  3. I’ve been reading Orwell’s Down and Out (1923 I think) and his casual anti Semitism is astonishing (and saddening). The wonder really is that Jews fleeing the nazis found any support at all.

    • Yes, I think it is often a case of people having beliefs in the abstract, (whether against people of colour or of different faiths) but shedding them when they meet face-to-face.


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