Review of Sarah’s Key

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Between 1940 and 1944, approximately 75,000 Jews were deported from France. Most of them perished in the German concentration camps. Despite these grim statistics, and despite the fact that France was partially occupied by Germany from 1940 to 1944, France was one of the European countries with the highest Jewish survival rate: roughly 75 percent. Out of about 340,000 Jews living in France, about 72,500 died during the Holocaust. Initially, part of France retained some autonomy: the Vichy regime of Marshal Philippe Petain signed an armistice with Germany. German anti-Semitic measures against the Jewish population of France began almost immediately, including forcing Jews to wear the yellow star and forbidding Jews from working in white-collar professions, as lawyers, teachers and journalists. Following a similar procedure in France to the rest of occupied Europe, the Germans created a Judenrat, the Union Generale des Israelites de France, to be able to control the Jewish population through a centralized administration.

Repressive measures soon followed. In August 1941, over 4000 Jews were incarcerated at the Drancy camp, to be deported to Auschwitz in March 1942. The Germans targeted for deportation not only men, but also women and children. The French police rounded up 13,000 Jews in Paris—including 4000 children–during the Velodrome D’Hiver roundup in July 1942. They were held there in horrible conditions: without heat, water, food or sanitation facilities. Some committed suicide by throwing themselves off the bleachers. The French municipal police carried the roundups on their own. Emile Hennequin, the director of police in Paris, officially ordered that the arrest of over 13,000 Jews “must be effected with maximum speed, without speaking and without comment.” The arrested were not given the opportunity to pack or say goodbye to loved ones.

The novel Sarah’s Key (St. Martin’s Griffin, 2008), written by Tatiana de Rosnay and originally published in France under the title Elle s’appelait Sarah, captures this shameful part of French history. The novel personalizes the atrocity by telling the fictionalized story of Sarah Starzynski, a ten-year-old Jewish girl living with her parents and four year old brother in Paris, who are rounded up by the French police in July 1942 and confined in the Velodrome d’Hiver. In the panic of the moment, Sarah hides her little brother in a camouflaged closet that looks like part of the wall, hoping to let him out upon returning in a few hours. She makes him promise not to get out until she returns.

However, Sarah and her parents don’t get the chance to return home. Her parents are eventually deported to Auschwitz, where they perish. Sarah, however, manages to escape with another Jewish girl, Rachel, to the countryside where they are hidden by a couple, Jules and Genevieve Dufaure, who are both farmers with a good heart. While Rachel dies of dysentery, Sarah survives and remains obsessed with saving her younger brother. The couple disguises her as a boy and they take the train back to Paris. By then, as Sarah discovers, her family’s apartment has already been allocated to another, non-Jewish family. Sarah rings the doorbell and, as soon as she’s let in, she runs quickly to the hidden closet. When she opens it, she’s horrified to find the corpse of her dead brother, who kept his promise to wait for her.

This tragic family tale is discovered sixty years later by journalist Julia Jarmond, whose in-laws inhabited the Jewish family’s former apartment in Paris. Julia, an American living in Paris, is herself struggling through a troubled marriage with Frenchman Bertrand Tezac, who cheated on her with a woman he’s fallen in love with. When Julia discovers she’s pregnant and decides to keep the baby, Bertrand, who was planning to leave his wife for his mistress, feels trapped. The couple divorces and Julia finds meaning in raising her baby girl, whom she tellingly names Sarah, and in tracking down the family history that leads her to these personal revelations about the Holocaust. Sarah’s Key may not be historical in the strictest sense of the term: the main characters are fiction. But this fictionalized journey into the past uncovers one of the darkest–and very real–moments in French history.

 

Claudia Moscovici, Holocaust Memory

 

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