Françoise Frenkel’s escape from the Nazis and Vichy France: A bitter, beautiful and important book

 

​Françoise Frenkel’s book ‘Rien où poser sa tête’ has been rescued from obscurity. Robert Fisk celebrates an extraordinary writer, and her story which has a mystery at its heart.

The mysterious Françoise – that is what French writers now call the young Jewish bookseller from Poland who wrote an equally mysterious book about her flight from the Nazis and the Pétainists and the milice (militia) in Vichy France after 1940, and about her desperate and ultimately successful attempt to escape the Auschwitz deportation trains and reach neutral Switzerland. To describe the book as powerful is an insult to Françoise Frenkel. It is written in abrupt, shocking yet delicate prose, cruelty and beauty combined in just over 250 pages, the wickedness of Nazi Germany – both its cancerous effect and heroic reactions among the soon-to-be occupied French – a constant, over-your-shoulder terror.

It’s easy to compare Frenkel’s book with the never-to-be-completed Tolstoyan epic of German occupation written by Irène Némirovsky, the Russian-born Jew who, unlike Frenkel, was sent to her death in Auschwitz in 1942, her Suite Française now printed in many languages and acknowledged as a masterpiece of 20th century literature. Alas, Frenkel’s nail-biting, sorrowful account of her travails – the French are already calling it “Fuite Française” (roughly, “in flight from France”) – has spent the past 70 years in a darkness as mysterious as the author’s life.

It is known that she died in Nice on 18 January 1975, but no photographs or letters exist. Only her book, which she titled Rien où poser sa tête (“No Place to Lay Her Head”) remains, first published in a tiny edition in Geneva in September 1945 – it received just one brief review in a Swiss feminist publication the following year – and only rediscovered in an attic in southern France in 2010.

The book’s new publishers, Gallimard in Paris, say that they cannot even trace Frenkel’s legal heirs. But far more mysterious is the complete absence in these pages of her husband Simon Raichenstein. He was detained in a French police raid in Paris in July 1942, was sent to the Drancy camp on the 24th of the month and died in Auschwitz on 19 August of that year. The book covers this period in great detail – but there is no mention of him.

Exactly a week after his murder – which Frenkel could not have known about then, although surely she knew of his arrest the previous month – she is writing almost blithely of her precarious life as a hunted Jew in Nice. “On 26 July, as usual, I was doing my grocery rounds,” she writes. “Despite the early morning, it was very warm, but I was astonished to see so few people at the market. When I’d finished shopping, I went quietly back to my hotel. But on turning the corner of the street next to my home, I looked up as usual towards the fourth floor to wave to my Viennese neighbour. This morning, she wasn’t there. On the other hand, I spotted on a third floor balcony a fellow-Pole, Mr Sigismond. He waved both his arms as a warning. I thought he was being humorous, but I quickly realised he was signaling to me.”

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