The deportation of French Jews to their deaths in Nazi concentration camps raises questions similar to those asked of the Germans—how could such supposedly “civilized” peoples enter into a cold-blooded program of mass extermination?  Sarah’s Key puts the question squarely to the people of France who took decades to acknowledge their complicity and participation in the roundup of French citizens during the German occupation of France.  In May of 2010, the British magazine The Economist  summed up the rather sorry record,

The French have tended to confront their record under Nazi occupation with a mixture of denial, silence and myth. The second world war was not on the school curriculum until 1962. Textbooks scarcely mentioned the Holocaust. No French leader from de Gaulle to Mitterrand acknowledged the state’s part in deporting Jews to Nazi death camps. It was not until Jacques Chirac became president in 1995 that the French state accepted its official complicity, prompting much soul-searching over collaboration, memory and guilt.

As the film shows, some of the French participated with gusto while others were reluctant and even defiant heroes who tried to help the Jews.  Despite individual acts of mercy or heroism, it is clear that without the passivity of the majority of the French, the deportations could not have happened.  Denmark sheltered and protected its Jewish population but the French did not.  In contrast, trains full of French Jews bound for death, left for concentration camps year after year, up to three days before the Allies marched into a liberated Paris.  The maniacal determination to continue to slaughter up to the last minute, even when it was clear that the Germans had lost the war, was unprecedented—even soldiers surrender when they are defeated.

Sarah’s Key, based on Tatiana de Rosnay’s 2007 book, is the story of the infamous Raid or Rafle on French Jews who were then deposited in the Vélodrome d’hiver (Winter Cycling Station).  This sports arena, once the site of bicycle races, was the holding pen for these tragic people, mostly women and children.  After five days without food or water or sanitation, the Jews were sent to interim camps in France.  There, mothers were separated from their children and sent on their final destination in concentration camps in Poland.  The children spent weeks in camps such as the one at Drancy before they too were shipped to the gas chambers.

The French demolished the bicycle stadium after the war and this site of such suffering and other sites of infamy have been thoroughly obliterated.  Under contract from the Gestapo, French moving companies would follow a Nazi sweep through a Jewish neighborhoods, gather up the contents of vacated Jewish flats and take clothing, furniture and personal items to sorting sites all over Paris.  These buildings for the “appropriations” have all disappeared and the sites now have a new identity—an advertising agency and a haute couture fashion house and a construction site.

A few memorials for the victims exist but it was not until 1993 that the French finally came to grips with their role in the extermination when the President Chirac gave a speech that pleased no one but began the process of healing a long-festering wound. ” These dark hours will stain our history forever, and are an insult to our history and tradition. Yes, the criminal insanity of the occupier was seconded by the French, by the French state,” Chirac said.

In 2010, despite the recent release of a French film about the Vél d’hiv’The Round Up (Le Rafle), which focused on the fate of the Jewish children left behind, President Sarkozy refused to add anything to these original comments. Indeed, the wonderful films, The Sorrow and the Pity (1969), directed by Marcel Ophüls was an early and isolated effort, followed two decades later by Claude Lanzmann’s Shoah (1985) and Louis Malle’s Au revoir les Enfants (1987) are among the most powerful and earliest tellings of the Holocaust by French artists.  Slowly, books have emerged on this traumatic  period of history that the French want to forget.  A quick glance at the publications makes it clear that there was silence until a new generation began to re-write French history in the 1990s, a full decade after the Germans began to take serious steps at atonement. Sarah’s Key is the story of how history has an uncomfortable way of not dying.

Starring Kristin Scott Thomas as an investigative journalist, Sarah’s Key, is a fiction that is also an allegory of guilt and shame.  “Julia Jarmond” works for a not-so-well known news magazine and snags the assignment of doing a substantive story on the roundup at the “Vél’ d’hiv’” as the French refer to this racial crime.  “Julia” is an American married to a successful French businessman, “Bertrand Tézac” (Frédéric Pierrot) who takes over an apartment in the Marais that has belonged to his family for a long time.  When the couple and their young teenage daughter decide to remodel and move in, “Julia” is in the midst of working up her story on Vél’ d’hiv’ and the film proceeds to tell two stories, one of the contemporary investigation about the Deportation and the other of the original Jewish inhabitants of the flat. Shortly after the Vél’ d’hiv’, the Tézac family acquired the flat and generations of guilt by complicity.  The movie is a study of how evil lives long and thrives, spreading out to ensnare innocent people who become stained, if only through association.

The first family who lived in the apartment, the Jewish family, were the ideal family: two parents, two children, a boy and a girl and a cat.  As soon as the German occupation of France began in 1940, Jews were marked and forced to wear the dreaded yellow star.  And then the French launched the poetically named “Operation Spring Wind,” the round up of 12,800 Jews on 16, 1942.  When the Nazis arrive at the door of the  Starzynski family to take the mother and her children away, the quick-witted “Sarah” (Mélusine Mayance) locks her little brother, “Michel” (Paul Mercier), in a large closet and carries the key with her to the Vél’ d’hiv’. It is here that the father reunites with this wife and child but he blames the little girl for leaving her brother behind.  The child who sensed the danger could have no way of comprehending the true fate awaiting her—she assumed she would return to her brother. There is no way to give the key to anyone; there are no kind souls to trust, and the Starzynski family is shipped to the Beaune-la-Rolande, where the parents are taken away and “Sarah,” ill and feverish, is left behind on her own.

When Sarah recovers, she manages to escape with a friend through the kindness of a French guard.  Haunted by the driving desire to unlock Michel from the closet, she and the other little girl run for their lives and escape the certain death at Auschwitz.  They find refuge with a kindly couple (Niles Arestrup and Dominique Frot) in a small town, but the other little girl dies of diphtheria.  The couple hides Sarah from the Nazis and disguises her as a young boy.  This masquerade allows the trio to travel to Paris and here is where the Tézac family encounters the Starzynski family, or what’s left of it.  The Tézac father and son are the only ones present in the flat when Sarah bursts into the apartment on a hot August day and unlocks the door to free her brother.  Of course Michel is dead.  The Tézac family, the males, now have a secret which they keep to themselves: a dead Jewish child who obeyed his sister and waited for her to come home and let him out.

It is into this Tézac family that “Julia” has married.  Of course, it is a bit of a coincidence that an investigative journalist would be married to the grandson of the man who took over an empty apartment “abandoned” by a Jewish family; but the film is really an allegory of loss and memory and the determination to not look back.  Sarah’s Key is not only about the personal memory of the traumatic discovery of the body of a child, whose presence was known only through its death scent in the Paris summer, it is also about the will of an entire nation to forget and to put a twin humiliation behind it: the humiliation of occupation and the humiliation of liberation.  True, the French hated the Germans but they also  cohabitated and collaborated  with them for four years.  All over France, there are clear signs of denial of the complicity and participation of the ordinary French people in the persecution of the Jews. (For a more complete discussion of  French ambiguity, read Holocaust Monuments and National Memory Cultures in Germany and France by Peter Carrier, published in 2005.)

The Deportation Memorial, of which I have written elsewhere, appears in this film as a background for “Julia’s” growing knowledge about the legacy of the deportations.  Designed by Georges-Henri Pingusson in 1962, the memorial consists of white walls carved with the names of 200,000 French deported by the Nazis.  The effect is to include the names of the 76,000 Jews without admitting that the French themselves were in charge of the operation and to obscure the French participation in the Holocaust.  The memorial alphabetizes the victims, unlike the Vietnam Veterans Memorial, designed twenty years later by Maya Lin who organized the names of the dead chronologically.  If this chronological arrangement had been followed by Pingusson, the day of July 16 would have been an entire section of Jewish names, overwhelming all the other non-Jewish names and indicating a systematic round up of Jews. As in Germany, it was not just what Daniel Goldhagen called “ordinary Germans,” but  the ordinary French and  the corporations and businesses who were also culpable. (One of the best books written about the process of “coming to terms with the past” is Coming to Terms with the Nazi Past by Philip Gassert and Alan E. Steinweis was published in 2006.)

SNCF, the French national railway, so adept at building and operating a superb rails system, was also adept at keeping its silence over its role in  transporting 76,000 Jews to concentration camps.  Then SNCF bid for a now-defunct (killed by a Republican governor) high-speed rail system between Tampa and Orlando and ran into the wrath of Holocaust Survivors in Florida.  After seventy years of silence, SNCF finally apologized in 2010…sort of…to the victims, less than 3,000 of whom returned home.

The SNCF had long maintained that it was “owned” and controlled by the Germans and that the company and the employees were “under orders.”  In addition, the railway did not, it claimed, profit from the deportation “business.”  Historians have refuted each of these claims but the SNCF outlines its familiar self-defense on the English language website put up by the company in the fall of 2010.  During the Deportations, each train car carried over Jewish 2,000 souls and the casualty rate was usually around 500 people on the way to Auschwitz.  The employees of the SNCF dutifully cleaned out the cars and returned to France for their next “cargo.”

The American President, Franklin Delano Roosevelt was well aware of the active participation of he SNCF and he stated in 1944, “All who knowingly take part in deportation of Jews to their death in Poland or Norwegians and French to their death in Germany are equally guilty with the executioner. All who share the guilt shall share the punishment.”  In their 1981 book, Vichy France and the Jews, (one of the earlier French books on the topic) Michael Robert Marrus and Robert O. Paxton, write of the constant demands the Nazis made upon the railroad that complex deportation schedules be kept or else, Eichmann warned, the French would be “denied the privilege of participating in the Final Solution.”  SNCF quickly fell in line.

Until the corporation met the Survivors of Florida, SNCF managed to escape responsibility but, with an eye to contracts for high speed rail systems in Florida and California, both states with large Jewish populations, SNCF apologized. “In the name of the S.N.C.F., I bow down before the victims, the survivors, the children of those deported, and before the suffering that still lives,” said Guillaume Pepy, who is the chair of the corporation.  Denying that there is any connection between their desire to secure lucrative contracts in America, the SNCF is donating a train station at Bobigny as a memorial to the victims of the deportations of Jews between 1943 and 1944 from that site.

Sarah’s Key tells a small but painful story, not of heroic resistance, but of coming to terms with indifference and blindness on the part of one French family who belatedly tried to do the right thing.  Sarah and her family symbolize all the innocent lives snuffed out by one of the purest examples of evil that has ever existed.  Sarah makes that evil become achingly real.  The Tézac family never acknowledges Sarah’s rightful ownership of the flat or her right to be compensated for their uncontested occupancy: their guilt will never take them that far.  But the film does not condemn all the French.  The family who rescued Sarah raised her, sheltered her and loved her but knew that she would never be whole, she would never get over her guilt over the death of her brother.  These “righteous Gentiles” were wise enough to let Sarah go and the young woman vanishes from France.  The journalist tracks down the fate of Sarah and her brother, and in the course of her journey into the past, she parts with her husband.  “Julia” is trying to put things right but although she can bring some comfort to the Tézac family who learn that the head of the family had faithfully sent money to Sarah’s new family, that is not enough recompense for her husband.  But there are some graves that should not be disturbed.

Eventually, “Julia” follows the trail of Sarah to New York where she married an American named “Richard Rainsferd.” But having committed suicide, Sarah is long dead, leaving behind her husband and a son, played by Aiden Quinn.  Even in New York, the truth is obscured.  It was not uncommon for a Holocaust Survivor to die of Survivor’s Guilt and the Rainsferd family closes the door on Sarah’s sad past and moves to the future.  When “Julia” finds “William Rainsferd,” he is unaware that his mother was Jewish, because she insisted on protecting him by baptizing him a Christian.  It is with “William” that the circle closes as he rediscovers his mother’s past and is finally able to understand and to grieve over her death, and the death of his uncle in a locked closet and the death of his grandparents in Auschwitz.

In the end, with the investigation over and her long article published, “Julia” leaves Paris and returns to her homeland, New York, where she raises her unexpected child, Sarah, all alone.  The film ends with “Julia” and “William” and little “Sarah,” in a New York restaurant.  The final moments of the film show “Julia” and “William” going over Sarah’s memorabilia and finding a peace with a past that is and is not theirs.  The message is not uplifting but a heartfelt, “never again.”  This is a wonderful movie, far and away one of the best films of 2011.  See it.

For my readers who would like to learn more of this historical period, the most recent book on the subject is And the Show Went On. Cultural LIfe in Nazi-Occupited Paris by Alan Riding, published in 2011.

Dr. Jeanne S. M. Willette

The Arts Blogger




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