Tatiana De Rosnay’s Sarah’s Key spent two years on the New York Times Bestseller List, and even longer than that on my nightstand before I finally read it. I regret not reading it sooner, as it would’ve drastically transformed my family’s trip to Paris the previous summer. I postponed reading it at first because I felt saturated by Holocaust stories (a despicable sentiment on my part – my grandfather managed to survive Buchenwald, but I was too emotionally overloaded to read a book?!). I rationalized that indelible visuals would linger long after I finished reading and I just didn’t want to cope with that. While De Rosnay’s writing style was intermittently cumbersome, the story captivated me from the first page and I quickly devoured it.
Along with the heap of apprehension before reading, came two well-deserved, but unexpected doses of guilt and shame upon finishing the book. The first was that I didn’t know much about the Vel d’Hiv roundup of Paris’s Jews. I’ve read many books and taken several courses on the Holocaust. Each time I learn a new fact it underscores the magnitude of the horrific subject matter – it is just too mammoth and incomprehensible. Still, I couldn’t fathom how events of such historical significance eluded my general knowledge. The second was that I realized I had allowed my children to miss an important opportunity during a trip to Paris, less than a year before I read the book.
When my husband and I visited Europe years earlier, we enjoyed exploring Jewish traditions and life. We seemed to deliberately seek vestiges of Jewish culture throughout our travels, lingering in ghettos, museums and old synagogues. We had visited Le Marais, the old Jewish Quarter in Paris and I was familiar with the streets and sites Sarah’s Key. But most of my memories of Paris comprise stereotypical cafe scenes, people watching and shopping. Still, exploring our own culture in a foreign land brought so much meaning to our trip that it is hard for me to now process how I didn’t make that a priority for my own children.
My husband and I visited Paris with our kids in 2013. Along with all the must-see touristy spots, we planned to explore Le Marais with our kids. Years earlier, when my husband and I first walked those ancient streets, I felt as though I had stepped back in time. I could imagine the families living in old stone buildings, the men leaving for work as tailors or in leather shops and the women, buying bread, surrounded by children. Yet somehow, we lost track of time and failed to make it to Le Marais. We ran ourselves ragged in Versailles, Giverny, Montmartre, the Champs-Elysees, and of course we elbowed our way up to the tiny Mona Lisa, behind her bulletproof glass and barricade. I’m overwrought with guilt that these places took precedence over our own Jewish history, on our Paris glitz list.
“Somewhere to the left is the old Jewish quarter,” I said, gesturing to my kids as we passed Notre Dame and the Ill St. Louis. “We’ll see it another time.” I rationalized that we just couldn’t fit it all in.
The main roundup of Paris’s Jews took place on July 16 and 17, 1942. As I read Sarah’s Key, I realized that we arrived in Paris on July 16, the 71st anniversary of the Vel d’Hiv roundup. If I could hit the rewind button, things would’ve been different. I would’ve educated my children and myself and made it a priority to visit Le Marais upon our fortuitous arrival date. I imagine we could’ve taken part in a memorial and walked those streets to gain some perspective and pay our respects. Instead, we spent our time taking in as much as we could by day, and collapsing on wicker chairs in sidewalk cafes by nightfall.
We ended our first evening on the Pont Des Arts Bridge, connecting our family love-lock to the fence, and throwing the key into the Seine. We were emotionally connected to the fence (that has since been torn down), but completely disconnected and oblivious to the historical significance of the day.
On July 16, 1942 the French police rounded up 13,000 French Jewish citizens, and herded them into a large stadium known as the Velodrome d’Hiver (Vel d’Hiv, for short). The French police acted on Nazi orders, holding thousands of Jews without food, water or sanitary facilities before they were deported to Auschwitz. This has long been a shameful stain on France’s history and French authorities did not acknowledge the events until 1993 when President Mitterrand commissioned a monument to commemorate the roundup. Two years later, President Chirac claimed France’s responsibility in a speech marking the anniversary of the Vel d’Hiv roundup.
The Velodrome D’Hiver was later destroyed in a fire. A small plaque commemorates the horrors that took place on that site. I’m not suggesting that an impressive monument would more aptly honor the victims who were terrorized inside the Vel d’Hiv, but it’s a noticeable and haunting omission in a city that boasts gold-gilded monuments on every corner.
From what I’ve read, no one wanted to remember, much less talk about it, so the events are not as well known as other uprisings or roundups. There is a concentration camp just outside Paris that is now a housing development, perhaps a product of years of silence, rebuilding and putting the past behind. The French authority’s complicity has been widely criticized by historians, and the recent wave of anti-Semitic incidents in France raises old fears and new questions.
In the two years since we visited France, anti-Semitic incidents and terrorism have been on the rise. Last year, 6,000 French Jews emigrated to Israel amidst fears of rising anti-Semitism. Given recent events, my family has decided to not go back and visit Paris for now. To feel safe, my son would have to remove the silver star of David he’s worn around his neck since his bar mitzvah in Jerusalem, five years ago. I would worry about my family’s safety as my passport clearly states that I was born in Israel. I feel sick about not honoring the Jewish Parisian citizens who were herded, rounded up like cattle and sent to their deaths. I regret that we didn’t see enough, but I cannot fathom visiting again, while having to shed and hide all relics of our religion and culture in order to feel safe in Paris. Perhaps the tide will turn and we will find ourselves walking the streets of Le Marais and the rest of the beautiful city again one day.