Bookseller Frenkel’s Holocaust memoir wins JQ Wingate Literary Prize

Bookseller Frenkel’s Holocaust memoir wins JQ Wingate Literary Prize

Françoise Frenkel’s rediscovered Holocaust memoir No Place to Lay One’s Head has won the 2019 JQ Wingate Literary Prize.

Jewish bookseller Frenkel escaped Berlin for France in 1939, before fleeing once more for Switzerland. Her account of her desperate flight from the Nazis was first printed in 1945; it vanished from public view before being rediscovered in 2010 in a car boot sale in southern France. Its English version, translated by Stephanie Smee, was published in 2018 by Pushkin Press, 43 years after the author’s death.

Described by judges as “a found treasure… filled with wisdom and hope”, Frenkel’s memoir was announced as the winner  of the £4,000 prize at JW3, following a discussion evening, with the 2019 judging panel, looking at the significance of a specifically Jewish prize and the joys, challenges and considerations of judging it. The BBC’s Emily Kasriel chaired the event.

Frenkel’s memoir was chosen from a shortlist which also included The Immortalists (Tinder Press/Headline) by Chloe Benjamin; Lisa Halliday’s critically-lauded debut Asymmetry (Granta), Dara Horn's New York Times Book Review Notable Book of 2018 Eternal Life (W.W. Norton &Co Ltd), Tel-Aviv set Evacuation (Text Publishing) by Raphael Jerusalmy (translated by Penny Hueston) and Mark Sarvas’ 20th century-set novel Memento Park (Farrar, Straus & Giroux).

Chair of judges Shoshana Boyd Gelfand said: “No Place to Lay One’s Head captured our hearts on so many levels. First of all, it is the memoir of an extraordinary woman who set up the first French-language bookshop in Berlin soon after the First World War. This in itself would have made her a fascinating character and her story worth reading. In addition, her compelling narrative of how she navigated the world she loved as it disintegrated around her, is told with poignancy and extraordinary empathy for those who helped her hide and escape. 

“What also stood out for us was the fact that Françoise Frenkel’s memoir was originally published in French in 1945 and then forgotten in the post-war haze. Only recently was a copy discovered by chance and translated to English. So this is not only a redemptive story of refugees and fleeing terror, but also a reminder that books too can cross borders and speak to new generations, if only they fall into the hands of those to whom the book is dedicated: men and women of good will. We are therefore deeply grateful to the publisher and to the translator, Stephanie Smee, for recognising in this book a precious gift from the past, and for redeeming a voice that is as relevant today as it was when it was written.”

Speaking in response, publisher of Pushkin Press Adam Freudenheim said: “On behalf of Françoise Frenkel, who died over 40 years ago at which time this book was out of print and entirely forgotten, I’m delighted that her memoir, penned shortly after her dramatic escape from Vichy, France, to Switzerland during WWII, has received this year’s JQ Wingate Prize.  It is also a testament to Stephanie Smee’s fine translation, which allows it to reach a worldwide readership.  Frenkel’s passion for books and for literature but above all for life is an inspiration to all of us, now more than ever.”

Now in its 42nd year, the JQ Wingate Literary prize, run in association with JW3, is awarded to the best book, fiction or non-fiction, to translate the idea of Jewishness to the general reader. 

This year’s judging panel comprised past JQ Wingate Literary Prize winner Thomas Harding together with best-selling children’s author Francesca Simon; JHub Director and JDOV founder Shoshana Boyd Gelfand and critic and literary editor Arifa Akbar.

The Jewish Quarterly Wingate Prize is the only UK literary prize of its kind and attracts nominations from all over the globe. Previous winners include Amos Oz, Zadie Smith, Oliver Sacks, Otto Dov Kulka and David Grossman.