In her novel Sarah’s Key Tatiana De Rosnay tells the horrific story of the Vel’ d’Hiv Roundup on July 16, 1942 in Paris. 13,152 Jews were arrested by the French police and taken to the Drancy prison camp in the suburbs of Paris or detained without food, water, or sanitary facilities in the Vélodrome d’Hiver before being shipped to Auschwitz for extermination. 4,051 of the victims were children.
Near the end of Sarah’s Key the narrator’s sister-in-law sums up the central question of the book when she says,
Bringing back the past is never a good idea, especially whatever happened during the war. No one wants to be reminded of that, nobody wants to think about that.
Is it better to remember the horrors of the past, or to keep secret the dark hidden suffering that lurks in the shadows of history?
Perhaps the answer seems self-evident. How could we ever benefit from hiding painful realities we know took place?
But the answer seems to have been less obvious to previous generations. We who have who have mostly avoided the worst agonies of war assume easily that telling the whole truth is always better. Those who lived with the terrible memories we now want them to share, made different choices. For them, silence seemed to be the more courageous root.
Many of those who lived through the terrible years of violence in Europe in the 1930′s and ’40′s, chose to keep their secrets. They made this choice, perhaps in the hope that the memories would fade if they refused to talk about them. Perhaps they kept silent hoping to spare those who had not experienced these things directly from having to share their inexpressible pain. Or, those who kept secrets may simply have known that any telling of their story could never fully express the horror they had encountered. Some stories simply cannot be adequately expressed.
Sarah’s Key clearly decides in favour of telling the truth as fully and as honestly as possible. De Rosnay does not duck the terrible implications of her French ancestors’ complicity in the Holocaust of French Jews. She faces the ugly past of French involvement. She is not alone in believing this story must be remembered.
In her novel, De Rosnay quotes the courageous speech given by newly elected French President Jacques Chirac, who said at the sixtieth anniversary of the Vel’ d’Hiv Roundup in 2002,
Sixty years ago, right here, in Paris, but also throughout France, the appalling tragedy began to take place. The march toward horror was speeding up. Already, the Shoah’s shadow darkened the innocent people herded into the Velodrome d’Hiver. This year, like every hear, we are gathered together in this place to remember. So as to forget nothing of the persecutions, the hunting down, and shattered destiny of so many French Jews.
Yes, Vel’ d’Hiv, Drancy, and all the transit camps, those ante-chambers of death, were organized, run, and guarded by Frenchmen. Yes, the first act of the Shoah took place right her, with the complicity of the French State.
It takes courage to acknowledge past guilt with such boldness. There are deep fears that lie at the heart of the determination to keep hidden the dark shadows of the past that never entirely dissipate when ignored.
The problem with secrets is that they reinforce the unconscious conviction that the pain we feel we must hide is too great for us to bear. The compelling power of denial is the belief that we will be annihilated by the shame, confusion, doubt, and fear generated by our pain.
De Rosnay’s novel ends with two characters whose pain has brought them to the place where words run out. They sit together in a coffee shop having shared the deepest pain of their lives. In a paragraph that contains one word, De Rosnay describes the place to which these two characters have come. At the bottom of the second to last page of the book, she writes,
It is essential to give voice to our pain. We must speak of our memories, bring them out into the open. We must have the courage to allow our pain to be seen. But there comes a point at which words are no longer adequate.
Words cannot express the depths of our pain. When we have exhausted all our words, we come finally to sit in silence.
Having allowed the work of remembering to do its job, we need to move finally to the place of letting go. We give up trying to explain, struggling to make sense. We surrender our determination to fix the world. It becomes possible simply to sit with the unfinished business of life. It just is what it is. This is what happened. It does not define us, control us, or paralyze us any longer. There is a greater, stronger, more stable reality unfolding at the centre of our being. This is the place of freedom for which we long.