Fact: the events of the Holocaust, and their impact on humanity, defy our grasp of descriptive language.
Fact: journalists, historians, and writers still attempt to do so.
Fact: people continue to read about it, continue to search for an answer to the complex question of “why?”
Fact or fiction, reading about the Holocaust is a sheer act of will. Odds are you won’t find much out there that could be summarized as a feel-good read. Which is probably why a knot of dread formed in my gut before I even cracked the cover on this month’s Book Club read: Sarah’s Key, by Tatiana de Rosnay.
I’ve read the book before, at the suggestion of a good friend, so I read this time with an intent to refresh the gaps in my recall and be well-versed for the gathering this month. For in all honesty, it’s a difficult book for me to read. I kind of have to force myself to continue reading when I dread turning the page.
In the novel, intersecting stories span generations as an ex-pat American journalist is assigned a story to commemorate the anniversary of the infamous Vel’ d’Hiv Roundup that happened in 1942 occupied Paris. For those of you not too schooled in this event (and I certainly wasn’t), it was a roundup of Jewish families that was conducted by the French police. Which may be why not many people heard of it. It’s hard to face a past that is not pretty, and this is far from a noble chapter in French history.
The author places a fictional family in the roundup and weaves a heartbreaking tale. As the events unfold for the family enduring the roundup, the story jumps back and forth between then and now as the journalist in the story begins to suspect connections between her in-laws and Vel’ d’Hiv. As we witness a young girl’s fight for life that she doesn’t even realize she’s waging, we also discover a new internal battle the journalist finds herself fighting without realizing that she’d ever step up to her own battle for life.
One thing a journalist learns is that truth is presented as a prism. You can circle people around a truth, and everyone will see something different within the truth; none of them are necessarily incorrect in what they see, but they may not see the same thing. Finding the truth when no one wants to see it is a different challenge, which the writer in this story encounters from the insignificant plaque marking the roundup at Vel’ d’Hiv to her father-in-law’s insistence on leaving the past behind. Perhaps it would be better to ask the question: if the truth is evident, but no one looks at it, is it still true? That appears to be the struggle the young girl faces in later years as we learn of her efforts to move on, to live a life, and to defy the intent of one regime to deny that she is worthy of life. She does not triumph over that struggle, but we only learn how long that battle lasted as we comb through the final chapters of the book.
After turning the final page, I let my mind drift back a couple of decades to a time when I got to visit a former concentration camp in Germany. It was a warm spring morning, and even though there were many people visiting the same place, it was eerily quiet. In some ways it was almost as though we were all straining to hear the cries of the voices silenced in this otherwise calm place. We yearned to find an answer to help understand how. And why.
Life sometimes defies explanation, which is the origins of myth and I also think faith. But if that little girl in the book hadn’t engaged in what she thought was a child’s game, would she have been compelled to struggle her way to freedom? If the journalist hadn’t been assigned the story she dove into, would she have been content and at peace with her husband’s demands for their family life? And would she have taken the same leaps of faith that the little girl did six decades earlier? It’s difficult to say.
Perhaps that is the main message in this story: we all float along in life, happy to ride the currents for the most part. But every now and then, a new ripple may come along, and whether you fight the ripples or coast along is not merely a decision of the moment. It changes your course, in ways both good and bad, that further your path in life. And who are we to say in the moment whether fighting or not fighting is the right thing to do? Our internal compass is the best one to follow.