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Beautiful Book Pick: Sarah’s Key

Every once in awhile, some one stumbles upon something that is a revelation to her, something that forces her to rethink a singular event. That event can no longer be viewed as just happening to a large group of anonymous people. Now it is seen as having happened to one person, a person with a name, a heart, feelings and a life who was changed forever by that singular event. Thus, it can be said that some of the best historical fiction focuses on unexplored, uncomfortable, or even secret events that really happened. Examining history through the lens of little explored — or selectively forgotten  — events provides an opportunity to rethink what we already know, and ponder more deeply what still lies hidden from our view.

In her novel Sarah’s Key, Tatiana De Rosnay confronts the difficulties involved in bringing these historical secrets to light. She turns the spotlight on a significant but little explored event that many in France, and the world, would likely prefer to forget: the  cooperation of the French police with Nazi demands for the deportation of French Jews during WWII that resulted in what has come to be called the Vel’ d’Hiv Roundup.  It’s a can’t-put-it-down read that forces us to examine the everyday injustices that we participate in, either by direct cooperation or simply by not speaking or acting out against them.

The plot turns on Julia Jarmond, a 40-ish American journalist living in Paris, assigned to cover the commemorative anniversary of the Roundup for an American Paris weekly. In the beginning of the novel, short chapters alternate deftly between the past — specifically, July 1942, following one anonymous family, and more particularly the daughter of that family, through the Vel’ d’Hiv — and the present, in which we become acquainted with Julia and the unusual circumstances that end up making her the perfect, the only, person who could truly write this story. Somewhere near the middle of the novel, the parallel lines of the lives of these two women converge in an intense conflagration.

Deportation of Jews from France/ Photo courtesy of Wikipedia

The anonymity of the Jewish family who are victims of the roundup underscores the intensely essential, but often forgotten fact, that history happens to individual human beings. The acts of individuals or collective groups have astonishing and often irreparable and horrific consequences in the lives of everyday people. This is a reality glossed over by the sweeping, impersonal, and biased narratives of history books throughout the world. Every character tellingly has a name in the 1942 portions of the novel, except the “girl” and her family. “The girl” is at once no one to those who wish to exterminate her, but is in every sense SOME ONE to those who love her. This nameless “girl” lived through an atrocity no one wants to think about or remember. She lives, breathes, feels, and believes and she has a story to tell, a promise to keep, and a difference to make. 

From the very beginning, Julia encounters many obstacles to completing her assignment — her husband, Bernard, and his family refuse to condone her research as worthwhile and make every effort to discourage her completely from proceeding. In addition, much historical evidence of the Roundup has been conveniently wiped away: the buildings in the area of the Velodrome and the Velodrome itself have all been razed, articles and pictures are hard to come by except through one Jewish agency who still seeks to find and name all those missing in the Holocaust, and the majority of witnesses are deceased. No one, it seems, thinks the Vel’ d’Hiv worth remembering or worth writing about. On top of everything, Julia struggles with a disintegrating marriage and the feeling that she is fading, disconnected from who and what she thought she’d become. The assignment, despite its difficulties, renews her sense of purpose and her joy in her vocation while presenting her with the challenge of puzzling out and asserting an individual identity from amidst a group that would seek to annihilate it.

There are two holocausts personified in the novel. The Jewish holocaust is juxtaposed against another holocaust, no less morally problematic and reprehensible. Julia is forced to choose either to confront or to participate in this modern-day atrocity.  The juxtaposition of moral choices and the individual’s participation in murder through lack of defiance or failure to speak weighs the holocaust of one generation against that of another with very disturbing parallels, which Julia fails to see (at least early on). While she is confused and repulsed by those who stood by and failed to do anything to save those who were rounded up and deported during the Vel’ d’Hiv, she herself fails to recognize the moral turpitude of her own situation until it is nearly too late. This is a theme that pervades the novel from beginning to end: It is easier to go with the flow, to do nothing that will cause commotion, to simply give in and cooperate. It is easier to ignore, to forget……. The saying that history repeats itself is never more true than in this fact: we often fail to take the lessons from history and apply it to ourselves, to our own society or personal situations; hence, what seems innocuous and gradually asserts itself as the moral norm is really the germ of some past nefarious deed reincarnating itself under another form, with the same devastating effects.

If there is any fault with the book it might be that the ending is a little too tidy or predictable, and there are places in the last quarter of the book where the writing slips into sentimentality or a reliance on easy plot devices. But these minor technicalities are forgiveable and do not take anything away from the main action of the novel — Julia’s growth and catharsis through this intimate and personal encounter with individuals who were previously “dead” in their anonymity — an anonymity forced upon them because their experience was too horrible to look upon or contemplate, because there was no one who could or would help them live with what had happened to them —  and whom she fearlessly and purposely brings back to life through uncovering and giving voice to their secrets, secrets that belong not only to them, but to all of humanity. In doing so, Julia uncovers and admits her own secrets, and looks deeply in to the places where her own life is most at risk, bringing everything in to the light and changing herself and those who know her profoundly.

Beauty Take-Away: This novel really brings the inherent dignity of the human being into sharp focus against others who have total disregard for this dignity. One view is beautiful and divine; the other is dark and devolves into the utter blackness of despair. It is not an easy novel to read — there are times when it is excruciatingly painful to go on to the next sentence. But the imminitable dignity, beauty, and gift of human life is present on every page. Ultimately it is a novel of hope and faith and a belief in God. De Rosnay weaves a story of life out of the ruins of the culture of death. This is a rare occurrence in mainstream fiction today and it is what makes Sarah’s Key so worth reading.

About the film: Read the book first. As in all cases, the book is better. The film is not unsuccessful, but it fails to reach the depth of insight the book accomplishes and glosses over some of the major conflicts that weigh so heavily in the development of Julia’s character in the novel.

A Meditation on Woman, in Celebration of the Feast of St. Teresa Benedicta of the Cross

Edith Stein was a prominent Jewish philosopher, writer, teacher, and professor in pre-WWII Germany. After reading The Autobiography of St. Teresa of Avila, Edith converted to Catholicism and eventually became a Carmelite nun, taking the name Teresa Benedicta of the Cross. She continued to write and study. During the war, Catholics of Jewish heritage were arrested by the Nazis and deported to concentration camps. St. Teresa Benedicta was executed in the gas chambers of Auschwitz in 1942. Her feast day is today, August 9.

Much of St. Teresa Benedicta’s work was given to illuminating the role of women and their vocation. She has much to say to us today and deep reading gives echoes of the writings of Blessed John Paul II. The following is taken from “The Ethos of Women’s Professions,” a lecture given by Dr. Stein at a meeting of the Catholic Association of Academics in Salzburg, Austria, on September 1, 1930. The entire text can be found in The Collected Works of Edith Stein, Vol. 2: Essays on Woman.

“Only by the power of grace can nature be liberated from its dross, restored to its purity, and made free to receive divine life. And this divine life itself is the inner driving power from which acts of love come forth. Whoever wants to preserve this life continually within herself must nourish it constantly from the source whence it flows without end — from the holy sacraments, above all from the sacrament of love. To have divine love as its inner form, a woman’s life must be a Eucharistic life. Only in daily, confidential relationship with the Lord in the tabernacle can one forget self, become free of all one’s own wishes and pretensions, and have a heart open to all the needs and wants of others. Whoever seeks to consult with the Eucharistic God in all her concerns, whoever lets herself be purified by the sanctifying power coming from the sacrifice at the altar, offering herself to the Lord in this sacrifice, whoever receives the Lord in her soul’s innermost depth in Holy Communion cannot but be drawn ever more deeply and powerfully into the flow of divine life, incorporated into the Mystical Body of Christ, her heart converted to the likeness of the divine heart.

Something else is related to this. When we entrust all the troubles of our earthly existence confidently to the divine heart, we are relieved of them. Then our soul is free to participate in the divine life. Then we walk by the side of the Savior on the path that He travelled on this eath during His earthly existence and still travels in the mystical afterlife. Indeed, with the eyes of faith, we penetrate into the secret depths of His hidden life within the pale of the godhead. On the other hand, this participation in the divine life has a liberating power initself; it lessens the weight of our earthly concerns and grants us a bit of eternity even in this finitude, a reflection of beatitude, a transformation into light. But the invitation to the transformation in God’s hand is given to us by God Himself in the liturgy of the Church. Therefore, the life of an authentic Catholic woman is also a liturgical life. Whoever prays together with the Curch in spirit and in truth knows that her whole life must be formed by this life of prayer.”