Adapting a complex novel to screen is a daunting task. The visual storyboard necessitates picking and choosing what can reasonably be forfeited to make a good movie. Sometimes, a screenplay can be faithful to the original book, as was the case in THE HELP (Part Two). But, I believe SARAH’S KEY could have done a much better job with the parallel contemporary story.
This is a devastating story of the Holocaust. I’m usually reticent to read books on that dark period in history. I only have to think about my sister’s mother-in-law to remember that the shattering losses of home, country, and family, the cruel and base inhumanity, and bearing witness to killing, shadows you all the rest of your life. Some do better than others. But as Elie Wiesel has said, there were no real survivors. This was clearly portrayed in both the movie and book.
We Shall Never Forget has become the mantra. There is a long list of other holocausts we should also not forget—Armenia, Bosnia, Rwanda, Darfur…. The point being it’s not enough just to remember. It is equally important to gather our own courage. Most of us aren’t brave. There were many people who risked their lives to hide Jews. Who of us could say the same? How would we respond from a position of safety?
This particular story is set in France. The French government was complicit with the Nazis. In the summer of 1942, French police rounded up thousands of Jews, transported them to Vél’ d’Hiv outside Paris and deported them to Auschwitz. Ten- year- old Sarah is the protagonist in this part of the story.
The contemporary story was only glossed over in the movie. But in the book, it is fully fleshed out. An American journalist, Julia Jarmond, who has been married for many years to a Frenchman, is researching a story to commemorate the sixtieth anniversary of this roundup. She has a French marriae. The husband has a mistress; the family has never really accepted her. The Parisian attitude toward outsiders makes her question her own identity and sense of belonging.
As Julia researches the story, she discovers that her French family is tied to Sarah’s. When we think of the broad historical picture, it never occurs to us that even in these times someone’s loss is another’s gain. In this case, the deportation of Sarah’s family opened up the chance for Julia’s in-laws to gain a larger apartment.
When I was in Paris several years ago, my apartment was in the Marais, the former Jewish quarter and a block away from the home in question. I hadn’t yet read the book but the history clearly haunted me. Every day, as I walked to the metro stop, I passed a school with a plaque: we will never forget/ 1100 children were held and deported to the camps.
I struggled to write a poem describing what I felt and thought about walking those streets. The result is the following poem from my book, Woman Sitting in a Café and other poems of Paris.
What We Remember
After The Evanescence by Edward Hirsch
(Evanescence: to disappear like vapor}
The day was a murky, indistinct gray.
Like looking at the sky through vaseline and dirty windows.
With dark shadow waving its wand.
A gleam of light reflects yellow stars.
Medieval stone buildings and heaving sidewalks
whisper stories too barbaric to speak out loud.
Plucked from their dreams, children hear sirens.
The clap of marching boots roar in their ears.
They are gathered up into their mothers’ laps, a last hug.
They remember the smell of yeast wrapped in lemons and wet kisses.
But it is not enough.
The fire is spreading and there is no time for good-bye.
The Red Sea is parting again but this time, God is nowhere.
How to call for help? Write on the sky? In the sand?
Carve a scream into the cobblestone?
Someone must be walking the beach, along the river.
Send a message in a bottle, fly a pigeon home.
France is an egg cracked wide open.
Tiny bits of shell stick to thickened tongues
that have forgotten how to speak
In the morning, the air will change to pink.
This is the day we’ve waited for, the Savior will finally come.
But He is late and the demons come first.
Feral dogs drag children from their beds.
They hurry them to the school with a bright blue door.
There they wait for the train, their field trip to Auschwitz.
Le Marais still holds those stories but who is listening?
An American woman passes the school and reads a plaque.
She learns 1100 children were deported for death camps.
She doesn’t see their faces, their little bodies, their shoes.
She sees numbers bobbing on life rafts, but they fade to black.
She thinks she will never forget.
But what is it that she will remember?
That she crawled into Anne Frank’s hiding space.
And saw a dove cry alone in the dark?
That Hannah taught her to knit the story of experiments on her ovaries
And showed her the black stumps that were her toes?
That Ruth’s memorial is of sepia-toned unsmiling photos
And that her Yahrzeit candles flicker with grief of Kristallnacht?
Le Marais is no longer the old Jewish quarter
What remains is the Rue de Rivoli, a narrow cobblestone street
The old Yids are no longer seen walking wearing somber clothing, hands clasped behind their backs whispering prayer.
In the early morning, Chinese women are in the park.
They move weightlessly, graceful sculptures on dewy green.
Moroccans open their stalls; pungent spice fills the street.
The air is thick with expectation.
Shadow-women shop the market;
yards of black fabric swallow them whole.
A dizzying world spins around them,
but they take one small step after another.
We cling to the lingering memory of darkness.
We witnessed evanescence,
now we remain brushed against the light.