This book combines two of my most favoured interests – namely, books and the Holocaust – and almost manages to shrug them both off in favour of an adventure story, and is actually all the better for it. Our author was the manager of a French-language bookstore in 1920s Berlin, when the Germans were still griping over Versailles and not exactly enamoured of their neighbours to the west. When it becomes impossible for her business to stay alive with the encroachments on Jewish business activities, particularly around Kristallnacht, she tries her best to pack up her life and leave for Paris. But once there the war is truly upon Europe, and again she has to apportion belongings for safe-keeping, and move on. Eventually, she’s left in possession of barely nothing, and struggling to leave the country illegally for safehaven elsewhere.
This is a very readable book, one that comes well translated, although a couple of places need editorial explanation, when two suitcases become three, and suchlike. One other instance is when two train tickets are mentioned, for despite the introduction revealing the author was married, and running the bookshop with her Jewish husband, who is never mentioned in the text, he has long since fled for safety. The book was written during the war (which means for once the forensic reproduction of dialogue and minutiae of proceedings can be taken with a much smaller pinch of salt than normally), and published immediately afterwards, only to be forgotten about. Only when it was rediscovered was the research able to be done that proved who this couple were – and some of what happened after the book finishes.
What we get is a book obviously concentrating on the Holocaust, but from a much different stance to usual. Surviving the camps was not expected, and as a result has often been written about. Survival through hiding out at the behest of kindly samaritans has not featured in books nearly as commonly, and this instance of an Eastern European trying to keep a vestige of sanity and her prior life alive in southern France is even more distinctive. Written with the immediacy and conversational manner of a diary, it still manages to convey all the emotions, from the humour of a prospective arranged husband, to the desultory queueing in all weathers for the latest documentation necessary, to the drama of will-she-won’t-she as she has to stay one step ahead of the authorities. Even knowing the ending (and indeed far too much, with this spoilerific introduction that also misreads one key scene), this is still a completely engaging read.
John Lloyd 5/3
No Place to Lay One’s Head by Françoise Frenkel
Pushkin Press 9781782274001 pbk Jan 2019