28 February 2012
During my youth in post-WWII America, particularly on the rural northern prairie, I had little awareness of the devastating horrors of the Holocaust. It's not clear whether the adults around me themselves were poorly informed, or whether they may have been trying to shield me from the savagery of which humans are capable. It troubles me, because there was certainly no effort to hide the military violence of the war ~ my parents' generation fought overseas and suffered at home. The events in Europe and in the Pacific were glorified in films, remembrances, even in comic books. How was it possible not to talk about the Nazi-sponsored genocide of 6 million Jews, along with millions of others not deemed fit to live in the world of Hitler's master race? If WWII was the defining event of the 20th century (and it was), then the Holocaust was the defining event of WWII. Of all the Jews who lived in Europe before the war broke out, only one third survived. No Jewish life was untouched.
Ironically, it was while I was a participant in my own generation's war ~ Vietnam ~ that I began to learn more deeply about that dreadful era. Two books in particular were the door through which my self-education began ~ Mila 18 by Leon Uris, and The Wall by John Hersey. Both novels were set in the Warsaw Ghetto, following the German invasion of Poland. My eyes began to open to the human capacity for atrocity, even as I took part in a conflict laden with its own atrocities, deceptions, and terror.
Many books have since been written about the Holocaust, and many movies made ~ The Diary of Anne Frank, Exodus, Judgment At Nuremburg, The Pawnbroker, Sophie's Choice, Au Revoir Les Enfants, Schindler's List, Everything Is Illuminated, Defiance, The Reader to name a very few. Several TV miniseries also portrayed that dark time ~ Holocaust, War and Remembrance, Band of Brothers. Each film is unique in its portrayal of people and events, and the degree to which it graphically depicts the unutterable misery of the ghettos and concentration camps. And each should be required viewing for students around the world, to try to prevent such evil from recurring.
Two days ago I watched Sarah's Key, an adaptation of Tatiana de Rosnay's novel Elle s'appelait Sarah. It is a French film, and a fine one. One of the long-ignored aspects of any military invasion and occupation of one nation by another is that among the oppressed population, some will organize armed resistance, some will just try to survive, and some will actively collaborate with the invaders. France was no exception. Sarah's Key shifts back and forth in time, as a modern journalist investigates the Vel' d'Hiv Roundup of Parisian Jews in July 1942. Her investigation focuses on one family ~ a mother, father, sister and brother ~ in whose lives chaos and grief strike without warning. I won't tell you more about the plot, in hopes that you will rent the movie (available through Netflix). The film's pacing is exquisite ~ the grim past is relieved just in time by the safer present, so that we may absorb what we've seen without being shattered by it. Yet the present isn't entirely safe, either. Twists of fate link the journalist to her long-ago subjects. The film is intelligent, adult, sensitively-drawn, and at times very hard to watch ~ but all the more important to watch for that reason. This was real.
Sarah's Key is made luminous by two performances ~ Kristin Scott Thomas (image above) as the modern journalist, and Melusine Mayance as the young Sarah. The story is partly a fascinating piece of detective work, partly a nuanced portrayal of a loving family torn asunder, and entirely a fine piece of movie-making, regardless of the topic. You can find a complete plot description here, or read a brief synopsis and view a trailer here. Far better to see the movie first, to form your own impressions. Highest recommendation.