I read Sarah’s Key on our drive home from Ontario earlier this month and so when the movie version opened here in Winnipeg I was anxious to see it. In both the book and the movie I was engaged by the story of young Sarah Starzynski, who locks her little brother in a closet in order to keep him safe when the French police, working in cooperation with the Nazis, come to round-up the rest of her family. Sarah and her parents are taken to a Paris sports arena and held captive in inhumane conditions with thousands of other French Jews. Eventually, most are sent to concentration camps and killed. Sarah’s little brother is left to die in the closet, but Sarah, who manages to escape from a transit camp thanks to the kindness of a French police officer, hangs onto the closet key always hoping she will be able to go back someday and rescue her brother.
The movie and the book, however, are actually telling two stories; Sarah’s story and that of Julia, a modern-day American journalist who uncovers the truth about what happened to Sarah and her family while doing research for an article. Julia’s storyline documents how she deals with a difficult marriage and an unplanned pregnancy. Julia’s personal life was too much like a soap opera for my liking. Although Julia has problems, they seem almost trivial when juxtapositioned with the life and death ones Sarah is facing. The ending to Julia’s story feels contrived and melodramatic when compared to the tragic, but realistic end to Sarah’s story. Despite this, I liked both the film and book and made a number of personal connections with them.
Julia says in the movie that she felt compelled to write about Sarah’s family because ‘if a story isn’t told it is forgotten.’ This reminded me of a visit I made to Yad Vashem, a Holocaust museum in Jerusalem. I was chaperoning a high school trip to Israel with 24 of my Hong Kong students. As you walk from room to room in the museum you hear stories being told in the first person, by Holocaust survivors. If you care to stop and listen, you can hear dozens and dozens of people describing their tragic experiences. We had not allowed nearly enough time for the museum since our students were so drawn in by the stories they wanted to listen to them all. I remember two in particular that I listened to. A woman said when she was six years old, Nazi soldiers knocked at the door of her home and her mother hid her in the coat closet before answering the knock. The mother asked the soldiers if she could get her coat to take with her, and when she opened the closet door to retrieve it, she whispered to her daughter, ” I love you.” The girl never saw her mother again. In another story, a woman described the agony she went through deciding whether to have an abortion because she did not want to bring a baby into the world only to have it die in a concentration camp. Sarah’s story in Tatiana de Rosnay’s book is like the ones I heard at Yad Vashem. As my teenage students stood and listened to those stories I saw tears trickling down many of their faces.
Although thousands of Jews were arrested by the French police who were aiding and abetting the Nazis, there were also French citizens who protected the Jews. An elderly couple in the story risks their own lives to save Sarah and her friend and end up giving Sarah a home and raising her to adulthood.
Over 20 years ago I read the book Lest Innocent Blood Be Shed and I have never forgotten its story. It is one I have shared with many of my students. The book is about a small Protestant French village called LeChambon. At the urging of the village pastor Andre Trocme, the people of the village band together to shelter and facilitate the escape of some 3,500 Jews, mostly children whose parents had been sent to concentration camps. The entire village was dedicated to the cause and throughout the war, not a single villager ever betrayed a neighbor. I was also impressed that the villagers were committed to helping the children maintain their Jewish faith rather than trying to convert them to Christianity. Like the elderly couple in the film, there were many French citizens who despite the great personal danger to themselves, saved the lives of their Jewish neighbors.
Although Sarah grows up to be a beautiful young woman who eventually marries and has a child of her own, she never gets over the catastrophe that befell her family and it has tragic consequences in her own life. I think she always felt guilty about locking her brother in that closet. If she hadn’t, might he have somehow escaped and lived like she did?
The first book I ever read by Gail Sheehy was The Spirit of Survival. It tells the story of a young Cambodian girl named Mohm whose family is killed during the brutal regime of Pol Phot and the Khmer Rouge. Mohm walks to a refugee camp, surviving unbelievable horrors as she does so. Author Sheehy meets her in the camp and adopts her. She raises Mohm to be a bright, happy, successful young woman. In the book, Sheehy explores why some Cambodian children who survived the Khmer Rouge became strong people, while others could never get over the tragedy they experienced and had troubled lives. They always felt guilty they had survived and their families had not. Sheehy tries to define that spirit of survival. I think Sarah in Tatiana de Rosnay’s book had that spirit as a child but not as an adult. My family has been involved with helping quite a number of refugees from war-torn countries settle in Canada and I have noted that even within the same family, some people find it easier to put their past behind them and move on, while others understandably struggle mightly to live with the tragedies of war they have experienced.
Julia, the journalist researching the French Holocaust, played by Kristin Scott Thomas in the film, becomes completely engrossed in Sarah’s story, in fact, it seems at times she is almost obsessed with it. She even goes so far as to name her new baby daughter Sarah. I think I would have found this unbelievable if the same thing hadn’t happened to me. Many years ago I wrote the life story of a woman named Anna Shilstra who was one of Canada’s first female doctors. In the mid 1900s, she lived and worked in Steinbach, the community where I grew up and lived most of my life. I interviewed dozens of people who had known her and I became so immersed in her story during the weeks I spent researching and writing it, that I began having dreams at night that I was her and was living her life.
I always encouraged my English students to find personal connections with the materials they read in order to make them more meaningful. If you’ve read Sarah’s Key or seen the movie I’d love to hear your personal connections.
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