Wednesday, December 29, 2010


I am not crazy about recommending a book with a subject that is going to be emotionally tough to read. Also I hesitate to recommend a book that I feel almost turns into a soap opera toward the end. But the book was recommended to me as a “must read,” and although it is fiction I learned much about a specific time and place about which my knowledge was sadly deficient and yours might be too. So I need to tell each of you that it will be worth your while to read it. The book is Sarah’s Key by Tatiana de Rostenay.

There is no dearth of stories, both fact and fiction, about the Jews during World War II. I have never read one that focuses on the Jews in France in 1942 and what they went through with the Vichy government. I have read about the Jews in Italy, in Poland and Eastern Europe. This was my first exposure to the Jews of Paris and its environs. It is not easy reading, but I would say you will find it doable and be glad you took the time to absorb what happened there.

The first part of the book switches back and forth in time, between a 1942 Parisian Jewish family and a present day American Journalist living in Paris. A key that a little Jewish girl named Sarah has is a theme through both parts. It is that first part of this story that makes this book so worthwhile.

As many of you know, I’ve been doing some indexing of the 1930 census for The other day I was working on the New York census for the Borough of Brooklyn, where I found pages and pages of Jews listed. As I entered the data on these people, I was overcome by a feeling of gratefulness and relief that all of these Jewish people listed on this and other pages that I had indexed had escaped from Hitler and his machinations. That, of course, lead me to the opposite feeling of sorrow and horror for the millions who did not escape. While I was indexing, I found myself saying to these Jewish immigrants that they were among the luckiest people in the world to be out of Europe and into our country by then!

The other thing reading "Sarah’s Key” reminded me of was a picture that came into Jerry’s possession at the time of his mother’s death. Jerry’s family all arrived in the US before 1910, so as far as we know there were no close relatives lost in the holocaust. His mom had been the youngest of three daughters – Betty, Belle and Bertha. “Bert” was the only one whose children lived to adulthood. Thus when Betty died, Belle inherited the family box of photos. Likewise, upon Belle’s passing, the photographs came to Bert. Jerry inherited those photos when his mother died, and we had the job of sorting through huge boxes of unmarked and unidentified people – maybe family and some maybe not.

There were few of the photos that we could identify, other than those of his aunts and their husbands, and reluctantly we tossed them out. But we found one snapshot that just took our breath away. It is of two unidentified people in a park, a man and a woman. The handwriting on back of the photo does not match any handwriting samples we have in our photo albums. The clothes could probably set the time period more precisely than we could guess; we’ve assumed the 1930s. These may be relatives of Bert’s or her husband's family or simply friends. There is no one left to ask. But take a look at the picture and see what it tells you.

On the back of the picture it says, “Here we are in a nice park near here. Do you know what the sign says? It reads, “Jews not wanted.” Isn’t that silly! We got a kick out of it so had our picture taken by it. Aren’t you glad you’re in America?”

Innocence and Evil in one click of the camera; the time and the place only guessed at.

The ultimate outcome is what Sarah’s Key is about.


marciamayo said...

I've heard about that book but am afraid to read it. I'm afraid it will break my heart.

Olga said...

I have read this book and agree--it is important to read--but it is heart breaking. I have just finished The Book THief--also a heartbreaker, but very well done.