Wednesday, March 30, 2011

Sarah's Key: A Book and a Memory

When I was very young, my family lived in Germany and visited the Dachau concentration camp. I don't remember that trip, but I know that all during my growing up years, it was etched in my brain that I had been there, like some scar on my heart that I couldn't see but was quite aware of.

In September of 2001, I had the opportunity to travel to Austria with my husband. I was in the midst of reading a series of World War II historical novels by Bodie Thoene, and, having learned so much about that time period in high school and college, thought this might be my one chance to see a piece of it. The Berlin Wall had fallen long ago by this time, and most vestiges of the war are gone. But a few of the concentration camps still exist, like a grim warning, and so I asked at the concierge desk about how I might get to Mauthausen, the camp where Anne Frank's friend Peter died. 
I got a blank look.

I knew his English was good, but perhaps in Austrian they don't call them "concentration camps." I tried other words. Extermination camps. Labor Camps. Work camps. Places where they held Jewish prisoners of war. 

Still a blank look.

I tried to explain it. He shook his head. I asked a few others that worked in the hotel, and got the same response. A non-response. 

I finally found one person who acknowledged that he knew what I was talking about, but told me the Austrian's didn't like to talk about that anymore, and it was better to put it behind them. That was part of occupied Austria, and not who they really are. 

I tried to show my profuse agreement. Indeed! I did not think they were proud of these actions and places! I knew it was a horrible scourge on their nation! 

"So why do you want to see this place?" he asked.

"Because it's important to remember," I said. "If we keep the memory close to our hearts, perhaps it will never happen again."

He shrugged and slipped back into German. "I don't know where the place is. Very far north. You can't get there from here." And that is all I could find out.

Last summer, my family traveled to Germany. My niece, having just finished studying about World War II and having heard about our trip to Dachau from my sister, who was older and still have vivid memories of it, asked if we could visit there again. 

Our tour guide tried to dissuade us. "It is a terrible place," he said. "It is a terrbible way for you to end your visit to Germany. We don't want that to be the last image you take home with you of our great country."

But in the end, he agreed, and he could not have been a more impacting tour guide for us. He was so solemn, so sad; he cried several times as we walked though the gates in the above picture and on through the camp. He told us beautiful stories about the people in the town, the people who survived, the overwhelming feeling of the Germans that they could not stop the avalanche of evil around them. 

When I put Sarah's Key on my reading list for this semester, I knew little about it. I knew it took place in 1942 - but in occupied France, which I knew little about. It also balanced that with a narrator in the present day, which was not particularly interesting to me. So I went into the book with few expectations and no real enthusiasm.
This story, however, touched me profoundly, and brought back these memories. The book, if you haven't read it, is the story of a girl in German-occupied Paris during the war, who is rounded up in a French police raid that captured thousands of Jews and eventually sent them all to Auschwitz to die. When the police come, she locks her little brother in a hidden cabinet in their house, promising to come back for him that day, not knowing that she is being taken away to her death. This is all interspersed with a story in the present about a woman journalist who researches this round-up for the 60th anniversary of the event. Of course, their stories come together at some point.

What struck me so authentically in this story was how hard it was for the journalist to get information on the raid. No one wanted to talk. Places that were part of the horror of that event were leveled and built over with apartments. Books about the event were out of print and impossible to find. People who were witnesses did not want to talk about it.

I know this to be true. As though in erasing the memory, you can erase the reality.

We Americans are so different than that. We remember everything. We do it loudly. We talk and write and practice a sort of cathartic vomiting of emotion. We keep the feelings raw and close to the surface until the wounds scab over and eventually heal. While we are constantly paving over and tearing down everything that is past its prime, we keep sacred those places where terrible things have happened. "Beware," they say in their little memorial signs. "You are not so different today that this could not happen again if you aren't careful to keep it from happening."

Anyway - that's what the book has made me think about. It's a great book. If you haven't read it, you should. I wasn't excited about it before I opened the pages, but I read the entire thing in two days and didn't want to put it down. It might make you think. It might make you remember. But in the end, it really is about how healing takes time. A lesson we all can learn.


  1. Dachau leaves a mark. My most poignant memory is standing inside the gas chamber. They say it was never used, but still.

  2. Wow...such a sad story. I guess we do differ as Americans...we do remember.

  3. Heidi,

    I remember that trip to Dachua in 1973 with your parents, sister, you, and my mother. I can still close my eyes and see it. It made a permanent impression on me.

    In the last several years, I have read dozens of books set in that time. I have read stories of the courage that victims demonstrated as they faced death and that those who tried to help faced in their attempts. It remains one of my favorite topics about which to read.

    Now, I will have to get my hand on that book! I have several of the books on the Holocaust on my shelves.

    Sadly, the hatred that caused the Holocaust is still very much alive and well all over the world causing pain in those who are different in some way. Why can't we learn to live in peace?

  4. Lo - I think you would love the book. It's not a cheery book by any means, but it lacks a certain amount of graphic-ness that other holocaust books have. The horror, really, is in what isn't said. And in that way is so much more powerful.

    I see pictures and read stories and wonder how anyone survived, and has managed to continue to live and thrive. There is the miracle.

    The capacity of a human to commit such evil against another is beyond my comprehension. Even now, all over the world, it happens. And I think all too often we, like the German citizens, feel powerless to make a difference, and so we close our eyes.

  5. When we were in Croatia, Durbrovnik, my husband asked a local person about the war between the serbs and croatians and the would not talk to us about it. It must be a North American thing to talk about our past.

    I've looked at this book several times and I think your review has pushed me to buy it.

  6. Oh that was a beautiful post. I agree that it's important to learn from the past. Plus, remembering is a tribute to the victims that died. Why would we want to ignore and forget them?

  7. I tend not to read war stories but you have convinced me this is a must read. Books such as The Reader and S0phie's Choice are one"s, like their subject, I never forget.

  8. This says it all: "cathartic vomiting of emotion".

    It's a cultural difference, I believe, between the countries on this side of the Atlantic and on those on the other. I understand the pain of rehashing it and why some would prefer to just say nothing, to not have to relive the event. But. I really do think it's healthier to get it out. I do think it's better for a whole nation(s) to recognize the tragedies and remember, respect, and use as an example of what can happen.

    But maybe if I lived in Europe I'd feel differently.

    Excellent post. You really shared how this book relates to a memory from your own life... that's what gives a book its impact.