Confusion, Anger, and Pride

No matter what despair I think the children in the Holocaust must have felt, there’s no way for me to truly feel it; however, Sarah’s Key by Tatiana de Rosnay made me feel everything I had imagined.


Leah Snyderman

The view from Yad Vashem overlooking modern-day Jerusalem after you emerge from the Children’s Memorial.

Warning: contains plot spoilers

     I don’t think I’ll ever be able to describe the emotions I was feeling in that moment. It was the first night of Hanukkah in December 2019, and I was in Israel with my religious school class for our Confirmation trip. Our tour around Yad Vashem, Israel’s official memorial for the victims of the Holocaust, was coming to an end. We had walked on cobblestone from the Warsaw Ghetto and listened to countless stories of survivors, one of whom was greatly involved in our synagogue back in Voorhees before he passed. The last thing you walk through on this tour is a memorial hollowed out from what seemed like a cave that is dedicated to the children who were taken too soon during the Holocaust. As I walked through the dark maze of glass and mirrored walls, I listened to a voice recording reading the names and ages of all the children. The mirrored walls reflect a single flame throughout, making it seem like there are 1.5 million lights throughout the cave to represent the 1.5 million children who died. Not a single person walked out with dry eyes. 

     I couldn’t help but put myself in the shoes of these children. Everytime I heard a girl’s name who was 15-years-old, the same age I was, I felt a sting in my heart. How must they have felt? This wasn’t a new thought in my head, but it seemed particularly relevant in the moment. I imagined I would feel something similar to when I first learned about the atrocities: anger, fear, sadness, but most of all, confusion. I am still unable to wrap my head around the events of the Holocaust and how people can be so evil, and I don’t think I ever will be able to. 

     No matter what despair I think the children in the Holocaust must have felt, there’s no way for me to truly feel it; however, Sarah’s Key by Tatiana de Rosnay made me feel everything I had imagined. The book transported me into the mind of a 10-year-old Jewish girl from Paris at the time of the Occupation of France by the Nazis. Rosnay flipped through two points of view—one of this girl and one of Julia Jarmond, a modern day American journalist who had been living in Paris for over a decade—whose stories would later intertwine. Rosnay did an amazing job at portraying the events through a child’s mind. Sarah Starzynski and her parents were taken during the Vel’ d’Hiv’ roundup in the middle of the night on July 16, 1942 by the French police. Out of fear, Sarah locked her brother, Michel, in their secret hiding place: a cupboard in their room. She took the key with her, promising him she’d be back. The story then follows Sarah through her time in the Velodrome d’Hiver stadium, then to one of the Loiret camps in Beaune-la-Rolande, and all throughout her escape and journey back to her brother in Paris. 

     Rosnay’s use of rhetorical questions depicts the confusion running through many children like Sarah’s minds. “Why was this happening to her? What had she done, or her parents done, to deserve this? Why was being Jewish so dreadful? Why were the Jews being treated like this?” (Rosnay 47). Sarah could not comprehend why she was facing persecution. This girl was only 10-years-old and was just starting to learn about the world around her. It’s hard for anyone to understand why the Holocaust happened, let alone a 10-year-old. “Unfair. So unfair. Why? Why them? Why all this?” (Rosnay 25). This quote once again shows Sarah’s perplexity through rhetorical questions, and it also touches on the anger she felt. The confusion she sensed as to “why her” led Sarah to a feeling of anger with the same question. She grew full of rage as to how unfair everything was. 

     Sarah projected her fury onto the policemen who arrested her. “The girl glared at the man, hating him, hating every inch of him. She loathed his florid face, his glistening mouth” (Rosnay 13). Her emotions were high, and she couldn’t seem to handle them. Sarah’s family and childhood were taken away from her. The horrors she saw forced her to grow up. At Beaune-la-Rolande after the children were separated from their mothers, Sarah took on a big-sister role to many of the kids there. She told them stories as a way to distract them from reality. “She was no longer a happy little ten-year-old girl. She was someone much older” (Rosnay 57). She had to abandon her childhood innocence and take on a role much older than she actually was. Sarah knew she would never be the same happy girl again after the summer of 1942.

     The impact caused by the confusion, hatred, and pain was everlasting. Sarah was mature beyond her years because her experiences were something no one should ever go through. Sarah’s point of view stops after she finds her brother dead in the cupboard back in Paris. Everything else the reader finds out about her life is through Julia Jarmond’s perspective. When writing an article on the Vel’ d’Hiv’ roundup, Julia stumbles across Sarah’s story. The apartment she was preparing to move into was the same one owned by her husband’s grandmother. Her husband’s father grew up in it, and the reader later finds out so did Sarah Starzynski before she was taken. Julia discovers the family secret that her husband’s father has kept for decades: they were the ones who moved into the apartment just weeks after it had been vacated by the Starzynskis, and when Sarah returned to Paris, she opened the cupboard in front of them to reveal her dead brother. Julia goes on a search to find Sarah and tell her that their family hasn’t forgotten about her and her brother, yet it’s too late. Sarah had moved to America, married, and had her own family. She told no one of who she truly was and the horrors she encountered. It was too much for her, and she committed suicide.

     Many survivors took a similar route in which they don’t talk about their experiences throughout the Holocaust. For many, it is too much to relive. My great-grandfather was around 18-years-old living in Belgium during this time. He was a part of the Resistance; he worked as a tailor for the Nazis and would sew in itching powder and thumbtacks to the lining of their jackets. Whenever they itched themselves, they would stab themselves. He got word of a roundup coming soon and decided to escape to Switzerland. By switching speaking between Dutch, French, and Polish, faking papers, and then hiking through the mountains around the camps, he was able to safely make it across the border. He then sent a coded letter to my great-grandmother instructing her to follow his steps. She joined him in Switzerland the day before the Swiss announced they were closing their borders. 

     My great-grandfather only told his story once. My uncle sat and took copious notes, so we luckily have a written account of everything. He never talked about what he went through, just as Sarah Starzynski never talked about what she went through. My great-grandfather’s story is very different from Sarah’s, yet they both show that everlasting impact. Neither of them wanted to relive their stories and possibly be looked at with pity for their experiences. This doesn’t take away from the many survivors who, no matter how hard it was, shared their stories for the world so that we may never forget. This just shows the other side and that there were many people who maybe wanted to forget what they went through out of anger and confusion. 

     When you walk out of the children’s memorial at Yad Vashem, you are greeted with a view of modern day Jerusalem. I was struggling to process my emotions as I stared out, looking at the Jewish land. Reading Sarah’s Key has allowed me to truly understand what I felt that day at Yad Vashem. It was that same sense of confusion, anger, and sadness that Sarah, my great-grandfather, and many other victims of the Holocaust had felt, but I also had a sense of pride as I looked at Jerusalem. It was pride in the Jewish people. We have persevered through numerous attempts at persecution throughout history and are still standing today. It was pride in my great-grandfather. He raised his children Jewish, who raised their children Jewish, who raised their children Jewish, all despite the challenges being Jewish had caused him. And it was also pride in myself. I knew in that moment that no matter what hatred I may experience, nothing can take away my Jewish heritage. Books like Sarah’s Key are reminders of this pride I felt at Yad Vashem, and are also reminders that we can never forget.