No Place to Lay One’s Head. By Françoise Frenkel. Translated by Stephanie Smee. Pushkin Press; 299 pages; £16.99.

IN 1921 Françoise Frenkel, a young Polish woman of Jewish faith, opened the first French-language bookshop in Berlin. She described it as a “calling”. A friend termed it a “crusade”. The venture drew authors, artists, diplomats and celebrities. For many at the beginning, the bookshop was a vibrant hub for the exchange of ideas. For others during the darker years of eroded liberties and stifled thought, it became a haven, a place to rest the mind and breathe easy. In July 1939 Frenkel finally realised that, whereas blacklisted authors and confiscated newspapers once jeopardised her livelihood, escalating persecution and violence now threatened her life.

Frenkel shut up shop, fled the country and spent four years in occupied France. Miraculously she lived to tell her tale. “No Place to Lay One’s Head” was written and published when Frenkel was in exile in Switzerland. It then disappeared for decades, resurfacing only in 2010 in a flea market, after which it was republished in French. Frenkel died in Nice in 1975. This is the first time her memoir has been translated into English.

The book’s opening chapter touches on Frenkel’s book-filled childhood and her studies in Paris, before covering the highs and lows of the bookshop years. The remainder—indeed the majority—of the narrative is devoted to her struggle for survival in the south of France. Relying first on her wits and later on the comfort of strangers, Frenkel moved from one refuge to another. She relates the challenge of obtaining a residence permit and the injustice of arrest. She evokes the agony of being cut off from family and friends and the horror of Nazi clampdowns and roundups. Tension mounts when she is hunted and faces deportation, leaving her no alternative but to plan a desperate escape across the border.

A preface by Patrick Modiano, a Nobel prize-winning author, and a 30-page dossier add further context. However, Frenkel’s story can be read without these props. It stands as both an illuminating depiction of wartime France and a gripping and affecting personal account of endurance and defiance. Frenkel writes candidly throughout about her fears and ordeals (at one point even considering taking “the ultimate way out”), but she soldiers on, refusing to be beaten. Whether she is evacuee or refugee, fugitive or captive, the reader roots for her every step of the way.