Like many Europeans who lived through World War II, Françoise Frenkel led an eventful life. A Polish Jewish woman born in 1889, she studied literature in Paris. In 1921, she opened a French bookstore in Berlin. She returned to Paris in 1939, fleeing the Nazis. She made several attempts to escape to Switzerland and eventually succeeded. But if Frenkel hadn’t written a memoir, she would likely be completely unknown. Rien où poser sa tête (No Place to Lay One’s Head) was published in Switzerland in 1945, sold a few copies and quickly sank into collective forgetfulness. Then a copy was found in 2010 at a sale for a French charity, and it’s now republished as A Bookshop in Berlin.
It’s interesting the way a title can affect a reader’s perception of a book. The title No Place to Lay One’s Head draws attention to Frenkel’s personal hardships, to the terror and cruelty she encountered. There is plenty of suspense as Frenkel describes her brushes with disaster—but the title A Bookshop in Berlin instead emphasizes her improbable bookstore, illuminating a deeper truth about Frenkel’s experiences.
Like a bookstore, Frenkel’s memoir contains not one story but many. There is, of course, her own odyssey to safety—but there’s also the heroic tale of M. and Mme. Marius, Frenkel’s friends and saviors; the comedy of the glamorous refugee who hoodwinked the Germans into saving her son; the tragedy of the young man accused of murdering his wife; the melodrama of hardened prison guards; and ultimately, a story of liberation and redemption.