Cover art for Francoise Frenkel's "A Bookshop in Berlin." by the Forward

A Polish Jew’s Memoir Of Survival, Unnoticed For Decades, Arrives In Translation

From 1940 to 1943, Françoise Frenkel, a Jew of Polish origin, remained in hiding in Occupied France. Where she hid varied. At times of relative freedom, she lodged at a hotel with other expats. When Gestapo raids became more frequent, and the threat of deportation loomed, she hid with friendly acquaintances (a remarkably generous couple that owned a hairdressing salon in Nice) and some not so friendly ones (a working girl who attempted to con her and a family that only wanted help with rent and rations).

The hiding ended in 1943, when Frenkel successfully crossed into neutral Switzerland, where she began the memoir of her time on the run, “Rien ou poser sa tete” (“No Place To Lay One’s Head”).

Exactly what happened to Frenkel after this work was published, in September 1945 by Editions Jeheber in Geneva, remains a mystery. What little we know comes from a 1958 compensation claim she made to the German government over a trunk that had been confiscated from storage in Paris while she was in Nice.

Her book had a small run — only one edition — and was forgotten until a copy appeared in 2010 at a charity jumble sale in Nice, where Frenkel waited out most of the war.

There is a poetry to this discovery. Frenkel’s pre-war vocation was bookselling and her lifelong identity was that of a reader and Francophile. She opened the first French language bookshop in Berlin and was a lover of rare and neglected French volumes.

“Every spare moment I had was spent along the riverbanks in front of the bouquinistes’ old, damp cases of books,” Frenkel writes in the beginning of her memoir of her early days in Paris. “Sometimes I thought I had discovered a document, a rare volume, an old letter; always a fresh, if fleeting, moment of joy.”

This frisson of excitement echoed across decades.

After Michel Francesconi found the memoir in Nice among the bric-a-brac of a rummage sale in 2010, a blogger named Valérie Scigala took to the internet to spread Frenkel’s story. Frédéric Maria, a researcher, then took the book to the French press Éditions Gallimard where, in 2015, editor Thomas Simmonet republished the book 70 years after its original run.

Around that time, Australian translator Stephanie Smee, visiting her son during his year abroad in Paris, found the book and approached Gallimard to translate it with Penguin in Australia. Now, Smee’s translation is on shelves in the U.S., albeit with a new title: “A Bookshop in Berlin.”

“I suspect It speaks to her continuing affinity with the world of letters which is a thread that weaves its way through the narrative,” Smee told the Forward.

That narrative is, like the relay-race path to republication, an international affair. Frenkel starts her account in Berlin, then details her travels from Paris to Avignon to Nice, ending with her dash to safety in the Swiss Alps. Throughout, she finds herself relying on the kindness of others not under threat by the Vichy government’s Nazi-dictated racial policies.

“I really felt that she had a particular skill at summing up the various personalities she encountered in those difficult years – a few quick sentences and we, her readers, have the measure of her opinions,” Smee said. “I think this was so effective in underlining the immediacy of her record of what she had experienced, the very particular and ordinary nature of people trying to exist and make sense of the ever-changing parameters of those dreadful years. It rendered individual all the difficulties, the fear, the chaos and brought the humanity of situations to the fore.”

“A Bookshop in Berlin” has been compared to Irène Némirovsky’s “Suite Française” and the anonymous “A Woman in Berlin.” As is the case with those works, Frenkel’s prose can shrink to the minute — her cloistered life and its aches, pains and paranoias — and expand to the sociological, taking on the qualities of reportage with its on-the-ground accounts of capricious bureaucracies and their shifting rules on rations and refugee status.

Poignantly, she describes Kristallnacht, when she walked by a synagogue that set on fire by an anti-Semitic mob.

“The heat was tremendous,” Frenkel wrote. “As I left the courtyard, I stumbled on a metal object. It was a silver seven-branched candelabrum, broken and twisted, tossed away. Out on the street, scattered papers lay strewn all over the ground. ‘Public announcements,’ I thought, bending down to pick up a sheet. Imagine my astonishment when I saw it was a fragment of Torah scroll, its scattered remains tossed to the winds.”

Later, Frenkel recalls the scene of a roundup in Nice.

“Reaching the avenue, I came upon a crowd of people. Several buses were parked there, surrounded by numerous policemen. Then some gendarmes arrived, shoving men, women, and children ahead of them or grabbing them by the arm. ‘What’s happening?’ I asked a truck driver. ‘They’re picking up the Jews,’ replied several voices at once. ‘We’re hunting humans now,’ came the disapproving comment of one worker.”

Much like “A Woman in Berlin” — whose anonymous author was recently revealed to be journalist Marta Hillers — there is a cipher-like quality to Frenkel’s prose.

“What makes ‘No Place To Lay One’s Head,’ unique is that we cannot precisely identify its author,” Nobel-winning novelist Patrick Modiano wrote in his preface. “This eyewitness account of the life of a woman hunted through the south of France and Haute-Savoie during the Occupation is all the more striking in that it reads like the testimony of an anonymous woman.”

Indeed, as Modiano notes, Frenkel, while not depriving us of the salient details of her wartime circumstances, is evasive when it comes to conventional biography. For one thing, she never mentions that she was married (her husband, Simon Raichenstein — though Frenkel likely didn’t know at the time of her writing — died at Auschwitz on August 19, 1942). Frenkel does mention cousins she had in Brussels and a family in Poland, but what became of that family and of her is still murky.

“We’re left with a lot of questions about her as an individual, and at the same time I don’t think any of that detracts from the sort of document she left behind,” said Adam Freudenheim, the publisher at Pushkin Press, which debuted the UK edition.

“It’s normal that we want to know more about her even if we can’t. The relevant point, which came up for the American publisher as well, is no one has come forward… As far as we know there’s no surviving family of any kind.”

We do know that Frenkel died in 1975 in Nice. Until her book — her sole published work — was found, decades later, that might have been the last word on her life. Now, with that book available at the kinds of shops she loved and operated, Frenkel has a chance at a second act.

PJ Grisar is the Forward’s culture fellow. He can be reached at Grisar@Forward.com.

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