Seventy years ago, July 16, 1942, in German-occupied France, the Nazis began a mass roundup of Jews. It was the first of such roundups in France.
The Vel' d'Hiv Roundup was a Nazi decreed raid and mass arrest in Paris by the French police on 16 and 17 July 1942, code named Opération Vent printanier ("Operation Spring Breeze"). The name for the event is derived from the nickname of the Vélodrome d'Hiver ("Winter Velodrome"), a bicycle velodrome and stadium where many of the victims were temporarily confined. The roundup was one of several aimed at reducing the Jewish population in occupied France. According to records of the Préfecture de Police, 13,152 victims were arrested and held at the Vélodrome d'Hiver and the Drancy internment camp nearby, then shipped by railway transports to Auschwitz for extermination.
Sarah's Key is a look at how the past and the present often get tangled up together, by juxtaposing the story of Sarah, a jewish child in Nazi-occupied Paris, and Julia, an American journalist whose husband's family inherits the same apartment.
The film opens with the joyful, innocent laughter of Sarah and her brother Michel tickling each other under the blankets in their parents' bed. But their giggles are interrupted by an ominous knocking at the door. To protect her brother, because she knows that the Nazis have been rounding up men and boys, she locks in him the little closet and makes him promise to stay in there and stay quiet until she opens it up.
This scene is followed by a view of the same apartment, in the present with Julia and her husband and teenaged daughter walking through and talking about remodeling.
Julia is an American journalist working for an International magazine, and is interested in doing a story about the upcoming anniversary of the Vel' d'Hiv Roundup. During her investigations, she learns that not only was the neighborhood where her new apartment is located the former Jewish district, but that her apartment in particular had been purchased by her husband's family just weeks after the roundup. She begins to dig deeper, following leads to track down Sarah and find out what happened to her and her family. At one point, she interviews a man who has studied that period extensively, and asks about the conditions in the velodrome during the roundup. He tells her, "Imagine the Superdome after Katrina, only time ten."
Sarah is a vivacious, brave girl facing unimaginable terror and showing amazing strength during the roundup, as the gendarmes show up pounding on the door of their flat, during their horrific time in the velodrome, and later when she is separated from her family in the concentration camps. All the while, she is obsessed with getting back to Paris and letting her brother out of the closet.
While they are in the velodrome, she gets very sick, like many of the other people confined. By the time they reach the camp, she and her mother have already been separated from her father. In a particularly gut-wrenching scene, the mothers are now separated from their children. Sarah is very sick, and her mother's goodbye is very sweet and very sad.
But that's not the end of the story. Sarah gets better, and befriends another girl. Together, they escape. They make their way to a nearby farm house where an older Christian couple take them in. I don't want to spoil any of the movie for you, though, so I'll leave off there.
I was immediately drawn into the story. Here's a girl fighting the system to save her brother, and a woman fighting to learn the truth about what happened in her family's past. It's a compelling story. How do we make up for the damages done in the past that we benefit from now? How do we live with the knowledge that our current privileges are at the expense of others?
All of the women and girls in this story are strong and do not shrink away from danger. There are some really fabulous glimpses of women doing whatever they can to survive, women holding up under pressure, women getting on with the business of living.
Yes, this film qualifies as a Self-Rescuing Princess Society film. I highly recommend it.
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