July 16 and 17, 1942 were dark days in French history when the French police arrested thousands of Parisian Jews, including thousands of children born in France. They were detained at the Rafle du Vélodrome d’Hiver (an indoor cycle track) in Paris where they endured unimaginable, inhumane conditions. A few days later, they were sent to internment camps and many, ultimately, were transported to Auschwitz for extermination. This event became known as the Vel’ d’Hiv Roundup, known to its organizers as Opération Vent Printanier or Operation Spring Breeze.
This past weekend was the 69th anniversary of the Vel’ d’Hiv Roundup. Coincidentally, I finished reading Sarah’s Key this past weekend, a book borrowed from my mother-in-law’s library. It’s a novel by Tatiana de Rosnay that intertwines the story of a young Jewish girl named Sarah who was arrested along with her parents during the Vel’ d’Hiv Roundup and that of Julia Jarmond, an American reporter grappling with marriage and motherhood in modern-day Paris who investigates Sarah’s whereabouts.
I don’t know if the chance of my finishing this book on the anniversary of Vel’ d’Hiv has any significance. What I do know is, though I have my share of unspoken dark days from my own specific cultural history, I need neither to be French nor Jewish to care about Vel’ d’Hiv. Innocent people were persecuted for no good reason, basic rights were severely violated, wrong was allowed to reign. These remain, as they were then, an affront to humanity.
One of the reasons we study history is to learn about the mistakes we’ve made in the past in order to keep from making the same ones going forward. As I understand it, Vel’ d’Hiv was not talked about and was not part of the French curriculum for a significant period between the time it took place until the 70s and the 80s. Now that it’s become public knowledge worldwide, thanks to this book, I for one am grateful to learn about this piece of history.
And yet we all know that we humans have difficulty learning from history. Sure, we can all remember important dates, events and figures from the past. But learning from our history is another. Whether our struggle with this is due to our refusal to acknowledge and remember traumatic and painful events, or our resistance to connect the dots between our past, present and future, or our inability to grasp our equal capacity for good and evil remains in the unfolding stage of humanity’s evolution.
Can humanity learn from history in such a way that we never make the same grave mistakes in the future?
In the words of Sarah: Zakhor. Al Tichkah. Remember. Never forget. Perhaps this is the first step to this conundrum.
Incidentally, I just found out that Sarah’s Key has been turned into a motion picture and will be released on July 22.