Watching Sarah’s Key slapped me around, punched me in the gut, shocked me to the core, and when it was over, and I came to, I realized I’d just watched one of the most difficult movies I can remember. And yet, I was uplifted by the human spirit.
The Vel d’Hiv round-up was a little known, hardly publicized and possibly swept under the rug episode in French (and German) history. It took place in Paris in 1942. About 10,000 Jews were arrested by police in their apartments, taken away by force and rounded up in a Paris velodrome. No sanitation or toilets, no food, no water, nothing but stadium benches for days, thousands of Jewish families were imprisoned and then taken away, one by one, into camps, never to be seen again. And the perpetrators were not the Germans but the French.
Sarah was a little girl, about 10 years old, who locked her younger brother into a closet in their apartment to hide and protect him when the police came knocking on their door. Sarah made her brother promise to remain there until it was safe and she came back for him. She was with her mother and father when they were hauled away. Eventually, the men were separated from the women and children, then later the mothers were separated from their children, and Sarah found herself in a concentration camp frantic with fright for her brother and no way to rescue him.
A modern-day journalist uncovers the story of Sarah quite by coincidence, and through sheer perseverance and some good luck she uncovers the terrible secret Sarah had carried with her and the knowledge of the horribly destroyed lives of generations of people.
Although 1942 is only 70 years ago, a very short time in history, the children that were alive then and witnessed these atrocities covered them up in their own minds and hid them from their descendants, to protect them, and to protect themselves. Their parents and grandparents, and their tormentors, are all passed away, and a new age and new generations have forgotten the horrible injustices and evil deeds of their ancestors. It does not seem real anymore.
Sarah’s Key is a powerful, captivating movie, with large portions in French with English subtitles. The Holocaust scenes are gut-wrenching. It is a very difficult movie to watch, and thus a very important one to experience.
I kept having to think of my own parents, who were children in Germany during the war, born in 1935, exactly Sarah’s age. I wonder what they cannot and will not ever tell me, or anyone else, of what they had to endure, just to grow up and have a chance to have their own lives, and give me mine.
Yet, history is with us, and it sleeps in places like old apartments, attics, basements, shoeboxes with pictures, books and keys to hidden closets – Sarah’s Key amongst them.