I bought this book last fall on vacation in the Outerbanks. It was recommended by the girl working at the shop. I love crammed little bookshops – have I mentioned that?
Sometimes I wonder how I ended up a book lover. Growing up we had a set of encyclopedias and lots of biblical commentary books that never got opened as far as I could tell. My parents didn’t read and we didn’t make trips to the library and they didn’t purchase me books very often. Actually, a few of the books I did have growing up, I stole from the local library or my school (ie I never returned them after I borrowed them.) I may not have had access to many books, but the books I did **ahem** acquire got read and re-read and re-read until bindings fell off and spines broke.
Anyhow, one of those books was called The Endless Steppe by Esther Hautzig. I still remember exactly what the cover looked like. I still remember the dedication page. I still remember the name of the poem she recited: Eugene Onegin. If you pressed my memory really hard, I might be able to recall verbatim the opening sentence. This story was autobiographical about the Jewish round up by the Russians in Poland. The author and her family were sent to Siberia and the story details her life in Siberia. They were the lucky ones.
In Sarah’s Key, I found myself comparing the round up of Polish Jews with the round up of French Jews. This story is heartbreaking if you allow yourself to ponder the horror of what happened to these families (men, women and children – 10,000 souls) during the Paris round up of 1942. It is known as the Vel d’Hiv. For years, the French did not admit their culpability in this even though it was French Gendarme who did the rounding up and imprisonment of these families in camps until they were separated: men in one camp, women another and children another. Once separated, the groups were loaded onto the trains and sent to Auschwitz. These French Jews, when they were sent to Auschwitz in August of ’42 were not even housed in the camp, they were immediately sent to the gas chambers. They served no useful purpose because the French had already removed their clothing, possessions and had even shaved them in preparation for their date with the death chambers. Polish Jews were rounded up by the Russians when they were in alliance with Hitler early in the war. In comparing the two books, it seems that the Russians were more compassionate than the French.
Sarah is 10 years old the night of July 16, 1942, when the round up took place. Ms. Hautzig was also 10 years old when her family was put on cattle cars. Sarah locks her toddler brother, Michel, into a hidden cupboard in their apartment promising to come back for him. She does this because her parents tried to protect her from the true horror they knew they were facing. There had been rumors of a round up, but the Jewish community thought it would be like others – a round up of the men. The men had begun to hide at night when raids occurred leaving their families in the home. Well, the French & Nazis caught on and decided to round up whole families. Sarah did not know the danger and therefore naturally thought everything would get sorted (these were French police after all, not Nazis) and she would soon be home to let Michel out of the cupboard. The anguish she feels when she realizes the truth is palpable. You feel her rage against her parents for not being honest with her. However, I don’t know if I blame them. They were protecting their children just like you and I would do.
This story is riveting. It takes place in the past and in the present and the author intertwines the lives of her characters so completely and compassionately. It is both sad and hopeful. Excruciatingly sad for the circumstances of Sarah’s life. Hopeful because as we learn about the ugliness of our past we will become better people now. I’m not optimistic about not repeating the past because that is all we seem to be capable of – repeating the past. We just get more high tech at it. But even a little hope is hope nonetheless.
I grieve for the families of the Holocaust. More than a few tears fell as I read Sarah’s story (and Julia’s story and especially Edoard’s).
Zakhor. Al Tichkach
Remember. Never forget.