Sarah's Key, novel and film: a sentimental Holocaust story--worthwhile?
Tatania deRosvnay--Sarah' s Key, a Holocaust Novel St. Martin 's Press, NY 2011, 400pp., $19.99
On July 16th 1942, thousands of Jews, men, women, and some 4000 children were rounded up by the French Police and taken to The "Velodrome d'Hiver." The "Vel d'Hiv" as it was known, a huge sports arena in the middle of Paris. There they were kept for several days, without sufficient food or water, without adequate toilet facilities, before being transported to transit camps. They were then sorted out, the older children and able bodied adults fit for labor, separated from the younger children and the babies who were tom screaming from their mothers' arms. Ultimately, they were shipped to Auschwitz from which the vast majority never returned.
The French were always quick to point out that these and similar "actions" that took place throughout France were carried out only under the strictest orders of the German occupying forces. Less emphasis was given to the fact that the French authorities, in this case the local police, carried them out quite willingly, often exceeding the levels of brutality required. Nor was it generally acknowledged that they were often urged on and abetted by ordinary French citizens who alerted police to the whereabouts of Jewish families who had fled and were in hiding. Such rapaciousness was widely accepted as a normal consequence of war, as though, quite apart from its apparent hardships, war itself justified the descent into barbarism.
As for the government, it offered neither excuses nor regrets, maintaining steadfastly that the responsibility for the brutal assault on French Jews belonged exclusively to the German invaders, and more grudgingly to the Vichy government (never an acknowledged representative of the French people) who chose to serve them. By way of vindication they pointed to the Resistance movement, whose heroic struggle against the Nazis, expressed the true spirit of the French people and its government.
Incredibly, this blatant deception remained the official position of the French government till 1995, when Jacques Chirac, then the President of France, acknowledged in a nationwide commemorative address, the active role of the French government and its citizens in Germany's systematic annihilation of the Jews. Long overdue and hardly a surprise to those who lived through the war, it is doubtful whether even now, more than sixty years after the war that this shameful "revelation" has been fully accepted by the French people. Clearly, one of the incentives of Tatania deRosnay's popular novel, "Sarah's Key" (2007) and no doubt the source of its distinctive moral fervor, is the attempt to correct this stubborn evasion. The roundup at Vel d'Hiv, described in some detail in the novel and represented with considerable fanfare in the recent film version, serves as something of a metaphoric centerpiece, that should alert this latest generation of readers and film viewers, for whom unfortunately the Holocaust has receded to the ranks of ancient history, what in the most immediate physical and emotional terms the Holocaust was really all about. The sheer brutality of the Vel d'Hiv episode continues to deliver a powerful shock. But beyond the purely visceral effect, what strikes us most forcibly in deRosnay's rendering of it, is how terribly contagious this brutality was. For it was clearly not the vile Nazis alone, who were "ideologically" committed to the destruction of the Jews, but decent French citizens, who as the legitimate heirs of the Enlightenment, could claim a place of high honor amongst the civilized nations of the world, who nevertheless found it reasonable to take up the despicable Nazi cause.
It was the French police who ripped babies from their mothers' arms and seemingly decent French citizens who contrived to profit from the misfortune of their Jewish neighbors, mad if, as deRosnay is careful to point out, there were also notable exceptions to the descent into barbarism, families like the Dusaures, who at great risk to themselves rescued a frightened Jewish child who had miraculously escaped from the transit camp, and raised her lovingly well into adulthood. Their enduring humanity served mainly to underscore the lack of humanity in so many others.
Setting the record straight is clearly the animating principle of the deRosnay's novel, what defines and distinguishes it and most importantly, provides its moral fibre. Yet in the final analysis deRosnay remains the popular novelist, as eager to entertain the readers as to enlighten them. And it is clear that the popular novelist has some difficulty maintaining a proper balance between these disparate, perhaps irreconcilable goals. However determined she may be to expose a truth that has been hidden far too long, she is eager to invest the serious task she has undertaken with the familiar trappings, the suspense and romance, and the faint promise of a happy ending that fulfills the reader's accustomed expectations.
As it concerns the Holocaust itself, deRosnay is respectfully sombre, yet the world she recreates has become so familiar, peopled by characters so typical and undistinguished as to seem generic. The titular Sarah whose story dominates at least half of the novel does not in fact extend beyond Holocaust victimhood. We do not often share her thoughts and feelings, nor do we hear her voice, except, as she frantically demands to return to the Marais apartment that was once home in order to unlock the cupboard in which her little brother has been hiding. When, with the help of the Dufaures, who have been her surrogate parents, she is able to do so, she discovers only the blackened remains of her brother, still clutching the tattered teddy bear that was to have comforted him till she returned. This clearly is the novel's central drama, eliciting the reader's deepest and most compassionate response, signaling in the most chilling terms the tragedy that will consume Sarah's life. What actually follows this seminal event--how without warning Sarah decides one day to leave the Dufaure family that have sustained her, travels to the United States, where she marries and bears a son, how she dies far too young in an automobile accident that bears the suspicious earmarks of a suicide-are critical facts of her life recollected in passing, long after they occurred. What is of primary importance here is that Sarah is one of those "survivors," of whom there are no doubt many thousands, who didn't, perhaps more clearly couldn't, really survive the horrors she had endured.
Sketching in the briefest terms the normal life so shockingly disrupted, deRosnay introduces us early on to the Starzynski family, Jewish immigrants, who having fled the hardships of Poland, settled in Paris in the middle of the twentieth century, resolved to work hard and build a good life for themselves and their children, ten-year old Sarah and her four year old brother, Michel. There was, as we know, an entirely different plan demonically devised for them, and it unfolded prophetically on that day when the local police, eager to fulfill their grim commission, came knocking at Starzynski's door. Everything about the scene, the arbitrary cruelty of the police, the fear and trembling of the victims, above all, the aura of impending doom is what we have come to expect of the canonical Holocaust story. What is singular in this all too familiar scenario, is the heavy irony that will attach to it. Anxious to protect her brother from harsh treatment by the police, Sarah has decided to lock him in the secret cupboard where they have so often played together. She holds on to the key and promises to release him once the crisis has subsided. It is of course a promise that she cannot keep. She is swept away, along with her parents, into the maelstrom of the transit camp, from which she does in fact eventually return, but far too late to save her brother. Abandoned in the dark cupboard, the four-year old boy will gradually starve to death, leaving Sarah, who wished only to spare him, responsible for his horrific demise.
The terrible irony of Sarah's vain attempt to protect her brother has been compared to the similar dilemma of William Styron's heroine in the acclaimed Holocaust novel, Sophie's Choice. Yet the underlying differences are perhaps more meaningful than the immediate similarities. Sarah's dilemma is in large part the result of her innocence. A mere child herself, she is unable to decipher the sinister nature of the reality she is confronting. If, on the face of it, the decision to spare her brother was freely taken, it was also the product of a misconception about what was possible in a world that was suddenly unrecognizably transformed. Sophie, on the other hand, is a fully comprehending adult who, given the diabolical choice by her Nazi captor, of saving one of her children, if she is willing to consign the other to a certain death, understands from the outset that she is obliged to take advantage of the opportunity to save at least one of her children and to suffer thereafter, the agony of having done so. What these stories share, what together they illustrate undeniably, is the impotence of what we might designate as the very highest of human instincts, the desire to nurture and protect those we love in the face of the implacable will to negate them.
Though it is central to the narrative, deRosnay relegates Sarah's story to an already receding past, largely forgotten by those who might have been involved in it. Fully half the novel takes place in a contemporary world in which we come to know yet another set of characters deeply immersed in the current life of Paris. Yet even if willfully disavowed, the past continues to intrude upon their lives. Most of the characters, some knowingly, others less consciously, are the bearers of guilty secrets concerning shameful accommodations and transgressions that were condoned as commonplace during the war. It is Julia Jarmond, an American journalist who has lived for many years in Paris, happily married to Bertrand Tezak, a successful architect, the devoted mother of Zoe, their adolescent daughter, who unwittingly serves as a catalyst in a painful process of discovery that will eventually unravel their seemingly idyllic life.
Assigned to do an article on the sixtieth anniversary of the Vel d'Hiv round up, a communal catastrophe that had long since faded from the popular consciousness, Julia uncovers the fateful story of Sarah and the key to the secret cupboard. In what is perhaps too convenient a coincidence to be entirely credible, she discovers as well that the Marais apartment in which Sarah and her family had lived when they were apprehended by the local police, the same apartment in which the body of her brother lay stifled as in a tomb, was soon after the the family's expulsion, illicitly acquired by the Tezaks, her husbands family, and bringing the series full circle, it is in fact the very same apartment that is currently being renovated for the future use of her own family.
Certainly some of these connections intended to drive home the lesson that however awkward it may be, the sins of the past must be accounted for, begin to feel uncomfortably contrived. More troubling however is the effect of all this on the character of Julia Jarmond who undergoes a radical awakening that literally transforms her from a responsible journalist into something like a martyr in the cause of the truth. In both the novel and the film version, a deeply outraged Julia is moved to leave the glittering Parisian world she now sees as thoroughly tainted by its unacknowledged past, and to quit as well the French husband she once loved, who it is now clear can neither accept responsibility for the past, nor renounce the advantages it conferred. Once back in the United States, Julia continues her obsessive search in which providentially, she finds no trace of Sarah herself, but discovers her handsome grown-up son toward whom it is clear she feels a profound and promising affinity.
We have at this point obviously traveled some distance from the original story of Sarah and her key. And if Julia spends much of her time obsessively tracing its sources and recovering its remains, we are by now so deeply immersed in the dynamic of her moral awakening that Sarah and the tragedy she has undergone, have pretty much fallen by the wayside. Ultimately, it is Julia's story, not Sarah's, that the novel tells. Whether this pre-emption is part of a conscious design to sell the novel and ensure the appeal of the film, or the result of a conventionally sentimental outlook is not entirely clear.
Insofar as it concerns the Holocaust, the more important question may well be, whether novels like Sarah's Key, whatever their tendencies or intentions, may yet serve to keep alive for current readers and viewers some semblance of the truth about the Holocaust.
HERTA NEWMAN is a literary & film critic, mainly of Holocaust and Jewish related themes. She is currently working on an extended review of David Grossman's To the End of the Land.