Book Review Saturday: Sarah’s Key

“Because they think we are different. So they are frightened of us.”

This book was hard to read. It’s so easy to put the Holocaust and its atrocities behind you and go about your day. Isn’t that what we are supposed to do? Not dwell on the past or give it another thought? This book slaps you in the face with it and then kicks you while you are down. Honestly, I knew very little about the French involvement in the deportation of Jews and that saddens me. We know what happened, we see the memorials and hear the sad tales but the digging stops there. We don’t want to face those kinds of truths. At one point, my boyfriend asked me why I was still reading if it makes me so upset? My answer was how can I not? The author does not spare you on details, and the pain is brought to life through her intertwining tale of Sarah, a Jewish child who was picked up by the French police, and Julia, a journalist investigating the round up.

Sarah is awoken by the French police banging on the apartment door. They ask for her father but he is already in hiding. The police are not aware of her little brother in the next room so she hides him away in the secret cupboard and locks the door. She knows he will be safe because she believes they will be coming right back. As they walk out onto the street her mother calls her father’s name and he appears. They board a train and are escorted to an arena where they are grouped with the other Jews. They remain there for days. Her brother has no one to save him. The children are eventually left alone and sent to Auschwitz. I waited for any sign of good news in Sarah’s story but little comes.

Julia is an American journalist married to a “typical” French man. She is asked to cover the anniversary of the roundup and becomes completely immersed in the story. Her research unfolds hidden secrets that her husband’s family wishes to stay buried. I don’t know if it’s the fact that she is a journalist or that the story so completely changes her but I just felt drawn to her character. I have buried myself into research and felt the changes in my own life. She wants to make a difference, she wants people to feel something. It’s a quality that appeals to me in a main character. I wasn’t a huge fan of her relationship with her husband that parallels her work, but overall this story will stay with me for a long time.

I highly recommend this book even if you normally shy away from historical fiction. It’s important to remember and study the past, and those emotions and feelings it sparks are what makes us human. It’s easy to leave things in the past, it takes courage to face it head on and learn from it. It only takes one person to change a life, one person to stand up for something, one person to help us remember.

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Displaced Persons

“As if what gave the experience its importance was the form of torture one had endured, rather than the loss of everything, mother, father, family, culture, language. The preferred violence- the gory details as Lola would say- to grief. Or perhaps people simply liked tales that matched with the pictures they had already seen.”

What happens to survivors after the Holocaust? How do they get back to the life they were meant to live? There are countless stories about what happened inside the concentration camps, but we never hear the stories after liberation. Ghita Schwarz gives insight into the life of displaced persons through several individuals who become intertwined in their attempts to move on after the war. The book is broken into periods of time, and follows the characters through businesses, marriages, children, retirement, and death. I am amazed at the author’s ability to write such a moving novel, without dwelling on the historical content. She focuses on what survivors must have felt emotionally, physically, and mentally and how they coped to their surroundings The simple things such as returning to school for children, learning a new language to communicate, or finding a new dwelling to call home are taken for granted by people who have never lived through something so horrific. I wonder how I would have coped. How would I feel about leaving my homeland? Giving up my language? Staring at a tattoo every day that wasn’t of my choosing? As an American, our freedom of choice and religion are so easily taken for granted.

We all hear about the brutality, but one story gripped me with full force. After the Germans came to a small town, they ordered each family to bring one young male to the square to be hanged. The head of the family had to choose, and families were required to watch the hanging. They turned the victims into killers. An impossible choice, but necessary to protect the rest of the family. As a father, how could you live with this choice? A parent is supposed to be able to protect their child.

It is important to note that after the war, many people turned a blind eye and never spoke of what occurred. I think this is a very big distinction made by Schwarz. As a child of the 80’s, I never knew a time where it was not discussed. There are people who claim it never happened, people who admire Hitler, and people who just want to know more about it. There is an abundant amount of resources now about the Holocaust that didn’t exist for the survivors for many decades. There was a time when survivors could not speak of it, and felt ashamed and embarrassed. They did not want to be near friends, because they only saw what happened to them instead of their future.

 I will never fully understand what it took for these people to move on with their lives, fortunate to have survived. I urge everyone to read, research, watch what is available and learn. I am so thankful this book found its way into my book sale bag. Schwarz leaves a lasting impression, and a new perspective to a topic that is so widely researched.