This book evoked a very personal response, not because it is a best seller but because of my family connections. My husband is a Holocaust survivor from Hungary. I have heard the stories he and his relatives tell and have recorded some of them in Hungarian Memories.
Two themes in the book resonate with what I had already learned. First, although Sarah’s secrecy was extreme, survivors shared very little with the next generation. My husband spent the war years with his cousin, who survived the camps but is now deceased. I sent a copy of the memoir to the cousin’s son, and he told me he wept as he read it because there was so much in it he did not know about his father.
Second, the French Jews were abused by the French police. Survivors were bitter about the complicity of their own countrymen in the roundups and deportations. My husband was born in Hungary. His mother died at Auschwitz and his father remarried after the war. They lived in New Jersey. I asked his stepmother if she would ever return to Hungary for a visit. “No,” she said, “the Hungarians killed my son.”
I took this picture a few years ago near St. Remy in the south of France. The sign marks the route of the French Jews who fled from Paris and made their way to Spain. The Jewish population of France increased in the 1930s as refugees came in from Germany and eastern Europe, to the resentment of many of the French. The “older” French Jews, who were assimilated and many of whom were also financially comfortable and had good connections, were best able to survive by fleeing or hiding. The recent refugees, like Sarah’s parents, did not have their resources and they were the ones who made up most of the Paris roundups.
Sarah’s Key tells of two women: Sarah Starzynski and Julia Jarmond. As a 21st century romance, Julia’s story uses too much contrivance and predictability. As a historical novel, Sarah’s story has the power to make past events and emotions real.