The nonfiction book is my shepherd through history. But a novel rescues like a big brooding St. Bernard from desert monotony or the mirage of the mundane. Let’s face it: in this over-heated summer of discontent we need a break for a few days. Avid readers often run for the romance novel or the latest sci-fi blockbuster. But for this reviewer I need Europe pre-war/World War II where I can peer over stone walls into lives of uncertainty. I can’t get my fill of facts of life in private homes and the everyday of peasants to city people to ghetto dwellers who inhabited the late 1930s to the mid 1940s Western Europe. So I keep looking for books on the subject.
To that end two books caught my fancy this summer: one a novel, Sarah’s Key, and the other a reconstructed autobiography, Not the Germans Alone: A Son’s Search for The Truth of Vichy by Isaac Levendel which I read concurrently. Both dealt with the French role in the Shoah: with the tools of the Vichy Government under 84-year-old Philippe Pétain or Marshal Pétain culminating in the Velodrome d’Hiver roundup — Vel’ d’Hiv for short where nearly 100,000 immigrant French Jews and French Nationals of Jewish origin were rounded up in a huge, now razed, stadium, moved to Drancy and sent to a final destination: the ovens of Auschwitz. Transports from France differed from other ghettos transports in that they went directly to the gas showers and the crematorium.
De Rosnay has a vested interest in France, where she lives with her husband and two children, as an established European novelist/writer; however, her original manuscript, a novel about a French girl born in France to Jewish immigrant parents caught up in the Vel’d’hiv with a secret, was initially rejected. The author persisted, and Sarah’s Key is now a major motion picture, a wonderful published novel and audio-book about a family in France fingered by the Vichy government and rounded up. French families caught in this waiting ghetto like those in Polish ghettos dare not go beyond the pale. And when Sarah realizes that her family will not return in time for dinner after the roundup, she frets secretly over locking her brother in a hidden closet. Sarah cannot go beyond the pale, which in this case are bolted doors of Vel’ d’Hiv and posted guards. She begs; she cajoles — but will she get out in time and what will she find when she gets back to her brother?
Sarah survives in the novel, but what happens to her brother, her family and offspring and the present-day journalist covering the story? de Rosnay weaves these subjects and more with intrigue, twists and turns, roadblocks and warm welcomes from the characters of Sarah’s Key.
I read the book and listened to the audio-book; both I enjoyed for their company and information. One critique involves the two tales: one present and one mid-war Paris. I did not have a problem with the two timelines, but often the journalist’s personal life impinged, and I found myself saying TMI. Spliced with Sarah’s story was the journalist covering this story: her personal problems in a rocky marriage and an impending abortion. I just wanted to skip those details and did. I really wanted more or all about Sarah, her family’s tribulations at the hands of French police and German laws — the events at hand. Life hangs in the balance for them, since we do know one thing: the year 1945 was fast approaching and Hitler was in a hurry to carry out his plans before the end of his Third Reich.
The author’s clear caveat is that this is not an historical novel. It holds many accurate details, but you have to tease them out for yourself, because they are mixed with purely fictional characters and events.
While Warsaw ghetto life was well-documented with hundreds of books detailing the ghettos there, French collaboration with the Germans was not. It is no secret but the French were not exactly transparent: not exactly shouting the crimes from red tile rooftops about their eager alliance with the SS and its many racial laws — laws that arrived one day and were implemented by the police before the ink dried. Sarah’s Key details some of the steps ordered by Germany. The final solution was a well-oiled machine that began with Kristalnacht, pogroms and restrictions and ended with Zyklon B pellets dropped into crowded “showers.”
Sarah’s Key tells a story set amidst German efficiency and need for order. They carefully set the stage in this truly historical genocide in steps: identification and isolation of the Jews, selection/roundup, transportation, final separation and final solution. Those who were separated and found “jobs” often survived the Holocaust or Shoah. The others were separated and marked for death, and they did not return from the ashes of Auschwitz. But you will return from reading this book with a new appreciation for dark history brought to light.