The Key: I have just finished a book entitled “Sarah’s Key” by Tatiana de Rosney. I am usually not a reader of fiction. I like non-fiction with a historical or political theme. This is historical fiction, however, so it fit my taste. The book riveted me from the beginning to end.
It is not exquisitely written as is some classical writing but it is interestingly written capturing my focus from the first pages. The novel has as its historical underpinning fascist Vichy, France during the Nazi occupation in 1942 and shows the willing complicity of some if not most of the French populous surrounding the fate of French Jewry during the Holocaust. Forgotten by some are the historical roots of anti-Semitism in France, as reflected in the famous 19th century Dreyfus affair and depicted in the film J’ Accuse. The basis of anti-Semitism in France, not always admitted and hard to face by some, runs deep and allowed for their willing participation in the 20th century mass slaughter of Jews.
The novel centers on a little known event in France called the Vel d' Hiv or the July 16, 1942 roundup of Jews by the French themselves per order of Marshall Petan under the auspices of Nazi occupation. It provided for the deportation of France's Jewish population to transit camps and ultimately to the killing machinery in the camps of Auschwitz. In this particular roundup 13,152 Jews were arrested, 5,802 were women, 4,051 were children and the rest were men. In reality all were murdered. They were separated men from the women and women from their children, stripped, heads shaved, belongings confiscated to meet their fate ultimately in the gas chambers of Auschwitz. One can only imagine what they felt and if one had happened to survive how permanent the trauma would have been.
In this fictional account, the ten year old child, Sarah, escaped and was saved by a few French people who did not have the heart to contribute to the suffering of a child. Jews sometimes use the term righteous Gentiles, an appellation reserved for those who hid Jews often at great risk to themselves sometimes even raising the Jewish child as their own.
Sarah had, during the, Vel d' Hiv roundup hidden her younger brother in a secret cupboard of her home, locked him in with a key which she kept in her pocket in hopes that would keep him safe from the French police who pounded at the door of their home forcing them to leave. The novel centers on her daring escape from the transit camp, a way station to Auschwitz to return to her home in Paris so she could, in her child’s mind, let her brother, whom she loved, out. The novel explores the feelings of an innocent child who cannot understand why the people she loved and knew would be doing this to her. Anti-Semitism was not even discussed in her own family in its attempt to retain her innocence and not expose her to its devastating psychological effects.
It is about, too, the occupants of her former home and their zeal to save her and a journalist's attempt to uncover the story by wading through much denial, obfuscation and refusal to face facts. The writer not only investigates this horrific story but finds she is connected to it through a series of discoveries.
It is riveting and is interspersed with data of the child Sarah and of the journalist who is writing the story about the Vel d' Hiv as the novel’s short chapter by chapter rendition going back and forth from past to present. It reflected some of the many facets of the Holocaust first through the eyes of those who experienced this historical monstrosity and those who perpetrated it but most importantly from the perspective of the brave few whose moral compass compelled them to act against it despite putting themselves and their family in grave danger. It also explores how some who were born significantly after the Holocaust and who are not necessarily Jewish, still have the moral compunction to remember and never forget it.
The novel gives rise to the eternal questions of why some simply go along and even advocate for man’s inhumanity but others see its moral bestiality, are consumed by it and act in ways to negate it.
The human animal is indeed a curious one as the Holocaust provides analysis of man’s complexity and the eternal human moral dilemmas he faces. One is forced, I think to ask oneself honestly, how would you have acted, how much would you risk and most importantly why.