Pam Webb

a writer's journey as a reader

What Price for Truth?

I am not prone to read books about the Holocaust. My mother, being German and having lived through the horrendous devastation of WWII, is my reminder of the harsh cruelties of war. I do though enjoy parallel plots and historical mysteries, and I picked up Sarah’s Key at the library for those two reasons, hoping its Holocaust story would not be too overwhelming. Unfortunately I found myself too much involved in the story before realizing the story would not have the happiest of endings.  So this serves as your SPOILER ALERT–if you can’t bear books of tragedy then I suggest finding another novel.  However, if you are attracted to the likes of The Kite Runner, The Boy in the Striped Pajamas, and The Life of Pi, that is a story where redemption is featured, then you might seek out Sarah’s Key.

While most Holocaust stories focus on German Jews, other countries also persecuted their Jewish countrymen. In France, in 1942, the Vel’ d’Hiv Roundup took place, where over 4,000 French Jews were taken to the Velodrome (an outdoor sports arena) and detained for days in inhumane conditions. They were eventually deported to the camps. So shameful became this event that is was not taught in schools, and no photographs remained.  Out of sight, out of mind. Yet, an event of such magnitude is not forgotten, and its truth resurfaced as Julia researches the event for the magazine she works for.

Sarah’s Key is twofold, a parallel plot: Julia’s and Sarah’s. Julia Jarmond is an American journalist who has married a Frenchman and embraces her life in France. She is assigned to write an article about the Vel’ d’Hiv as the 60th anniversary draws near. Sarah Starzynski is the parallel story taking place in 1942. She is ten when the police come for her family and she thinks to protect her younger brother by locking him in the cupboard. Her story is about returning for him. As Julia researches the article she focuses on Sarah and becomes obsessed with finding out what happened to her because Sarah did not die in the camp.

I stayed up all night reading this novel, something I am not in the habit of doing. Quite frankly, I abandoned Julia’s story and read Sarah’s instead, returning to Julia’s after completing Sarah’s. Her story is riveting. As much as I wanted her to have a happy ending, it did not end well, but her devotion to her brother is moving.  Her story stayed with me long after closing the book.

Recently, I discovered the film, and of course knowing the novel, I was a bit reluctant to watch it.  Fortunately, it was filmed with sensitivity and the actress playing Sarah is phenomenal. The weaving of the two stories, Julia’s and Sarah’s’ is handled much better in the film than it was in the novel. I actually suggest watching the film first, and then read the novel.

Sarah's Key

Sarah’s Key (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Both the novel and the film explore the aspect of truth. How important is it? Is it necessary to reveal the truth? What is the ultimate price for realizing the truth? For a country, there came the reminder of a shameful historical past.  For Julia, it was the realization that her devotion lay stronger for her child than her husband.  And for Sarah–for Sarah the truth became unbearable.  At one point, Julia’s husband, angry at her obsession with researching about Sarah and her family, wonders about the value of truth. “Is anyone happier for it?”

Truth hurts. There is a price for truth. Sarah’s Key is a different slant on the Holocaust, but for me, it is a reminder that truth is what we seek, although its answers often wound.

Emily D painted this portrait of Truth:

I did mention the novel also addresses redemption. Sometimes discovering the truth or revealing it serves as a catharsis, and a person is relieved to have Truth’s brightness purge the darkness that can come by trying to hide it.

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7 thoughts on “What Price for Truth?

  1. This sounds really good – I think I’ll have to give it a read. While I wouldn’t say that I “enjoy” books like The Kite Runner and The Boy In The Striped Pyjamas, they definitely help at putting things in perspective and I think are invaluable in teaching later generations about the atrocities of war and of history in general. As you mentioned in regards to this particular event, it’s a case of out of sight, out of mind. I’m sure there are more than a few people who are unaware of this event in France (myself included). While Germany may have played the biggest role in the persecution of the Jewish people, I find it a little infuriating that many other countries would feign innocence of the same crime.

  2. Love your review. This is one book that I would love to read, and it is in fact on my TBR list. I can’t wait to read it!

  3. i love this book, read it two months back i think…its heart breaking…but so well written..

  4. I loved this book. It was heartbreaking and haunting. In some ways, I find stories like these way more educating than anything written in history books!
    And, thanks to your recommendation, I will check out the movie as well!

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