I recently stopped in Paris on the route back to my home in Provence after a brief trip abroad. The city in its pre-Christmas finery was more beautiful than ever. Despite the pall created by the violent attacks in November, the life of the mind and appreciation of the arts continues to animate life here.
A literary event that has people talking is the appearance of Françoise Frenkel's memoir Rien où poser sa tête, roughly translated as "No Place to Lay Her Head." You haven't heard of her? Neither had I, nor almost anyone else. Originally published in Switzerland to complete lack of public notice at the end of the Second World War, the book is a painstaking recounting of Ms. Frenkel's life as a Jew in flight from the Nazis, first in Berlin where she ran a bookstore devoted to French literature until her precipitous escape from Germany in 1939, and her subsequent travails as a clandestine refugee in occupied France. Written in French and long forgotten, a discarded copy was discovered by sheer chance in Nice, where Frenkel had returned after the war. With a preface by Nobel Prize winner Patrick Modiano, it has now been reissued by L'Arbalète Gallimard to ecstatic reviews.
Not only had Frenkel's book disappeared from view, but there is little trace of the postwar life of the author herself. While writing his introduction to the memoir, Modiano tried to find out something about her. It is documented that she escaped to Switzerland in 1942 and after the war returned to the south of France. She apparently settled in Nice and died there in the 1970s. Nearly everything else about her life is a mystery.
In the forward to her limpid and beautifully written memoir, she says she feels that survivors like herself must not only be witnesses for the dead, but also to the indefatigable people of good will--in her case, mostly French--who protected her and resisted the violence of both the French and German authorities during the occupation.
In Frenkel's account of herself, she writes that from the earliest age she adored books. She later studied French literature at the Sorbonne and she enjoyed collecting treasures from the bookstalls along the quais of the Seine. She talks about books as if they were close friends, even lovers, and she their ever-faithful acolyte. In her store in Berlin, La Maison du Livre, this intellectual promoted newly published books along with the classics, gave parties for writers, held readings and fostered the spread of enlightened ideals. All this became increasingly difficult, and then impossible, when the Nazis took power. More and more, the French books and periodicals she received would be confiscated, and she was further threatened because she was a Jew. Finally, in 1939 she was forced to flee to Paris overnight, taking only a few necessities and abandoning her beloved bookstore.
The rest of the memoir recounts the noose that tightened around her in France where she was initially given asylum and considered "a boon to the state." But when the Germans invaded, under the Vichy government her safety became more and more precarious. This refined soul artfully describes many sides of the human character, the bureaucrats whose job was to systematically carve away her rights, the opportunists who were all too ready to take advantage of her vulnerability, and those who meant everything to her--the big-hearted individuals who helped her survive.
The resurrection of this book from the grave comes at a particularly chilling time for Europe as peoples' suspicion and fear of refugees--now called "migrants"--mounts. The growing antipathy for those desperately trying to cross borders would certainly be something about which Françoise Frenkel would have much to say.