No Place to Lay One’s Head by Françoise Frenkel (1945)

Fittingly, I finished reading this on Sunday, which was International Holocaust Remembrance Day. Even after seven decades, we’re still unearthing new Holocaust narratives, such as this one: rediscovered in a flea market in 2010, it was republished in French in 2015 and first became available in English translation in 2017.

Born Frymeta Idesa Frenkel in Poland, the author (1889–1975) was a Jew who opened the first French-language bookstore in Berlin in 1921. After Kristallnacht and the seizure of her stock and furniture, she left for France and a succession of makeshift situations, mostly in Avignon and Nice. She lived in a hotel, a chateau, and the spare room of a sewing machinist whose four cats generously shared their fleas. All along, the Mariuses, a pair of hairdressers, were like guardian angels she could go back to between emergency placements.

This memoir showcases the familiar continuum of uneasiness blooming into downright horror as people realized what was going on in Europe. To start with one could downplay the inconveniences of having belongings confiscated and work permits denied, of squeezing onto packed trains and being turned back at closed borders. Only gradually, as rumors spread of what was happening to deported Jews, did Frenkel understand how much danger she was in.

The second half of the book is more exciting than the first, especially after Frenkel is arrested at the Swiss border. (Even though you know she makes it out alive.) Her pen portraits of her fellow detainees show real empathy as well as writing talent. Strangely, Frenkel never mentions her husband, who went into exile in France in 1933 and died in Auschwitz in 1942. I would also have liked to hear more about her 17 years of normal bookselling life before everything kicked off. Still, this is a valuable glimpse into the events of the time, and a comparable read to Władysław Szpilman’s The Pianist.

My rating:


No Place to Lay One’s Head (translated from the French by Stephanie Smee) is issued in paperback today, January 31st, by Pushkin Press. This edition includes a preface by Patrick Modiano and a dossier of documents and photos relating to Frenkel’s life. My thanks to the publisher for the free copy for review.

9 responses

  1. This sounds a worthwhile read, and one I’ll bookmark for later. I don’t think I can willingly introduce more stress into my life at the moment.


    1. Well, the fact that you know she survived means it’s not as harrowing as it could be, and there are no particularly distressing scenes.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. I’m afraid I passed on this one although the bookselling strand was a lure.


    1. Fair enough. The bookselling was a very minor element indeed.

      Liked by 1 person

  3. This sounds fascinating – and what a beautiful cover.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Nice to hear from you, Lizzi. Hope you’ve been well? 🙂


  4. So distressing to read recently that something like 60% of young people in one country polled (I think maybe Canada?) can’t name one concentration camp. I hope memoirs like these continue to come to light and are published, and remain in print for a long time. We need to do a better job of educating young people about these atrocities. This one sounds like it’s worth reading.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I’ve heard some distressing statistics along those lines, about how many people have never heard of the Holocaust or don’t believe it happened. You’re right — we still need these stories.

      Liked by 1 person

  5. […] came across Bookish Beck’s review of No Place to Lay One’s Head last month and knew I just had to read it. It is the memoir of […]


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