No Place for Antisemitism
Not sure why, but I rewatched the movie “Sarah’s Key” for the third or fourth time (on Amazon or Netflix — can’t remember which), that is taken from a novel of the same name written by Tatiana de Rosnay. I read the book, cried through most of it, then was moved by the film, now several times.
In French, the title is “Elle s’Appelait Sarah,” why I don’t know since it’s a lot less fitting than “La Clef de Sarah,” but I’m not complaining. Basically, it’s a story about a journalist’s self-imposed investigation into the notorious “rafle” (round-up) in July 1942 when the French authorities arrested more than 13,000 Jewish men, women and children, transporting them to the Vélodrome d’Hiver where most of them were held in extremely crowded conditions, almost without food and water and with no sanitary facilities, before being shipped in cattle cars to Auschwitz.
The investigation coincides in the film with young Sarah’s own story from the time of the round-up — how she hid her brother in a locked closet in their apartment when the police came, leaving him behind, thinking he would be safe, when in fact, he was left to die there. She managed to escape the internment camp and return to find her brother’s body with the help of a sympathetic French couple who adopted her as their own. Coincidentally, the apartment in the story existed on my own street in the Marais, rue de Saintonge.
I had the fortune of hearing Madame de Rosnay speak at the American Library in 2011 and asked her why the street number in the film was different from the one in the book, number 36 rather than 26. She explained that the addresses were fictitious and that the movie producers had license to change what they wanted. Still, I have always felt a kind of weird connection with the story, especially since I once learned that my own apartment had been occupied by a Jewish dentist who saw patients in what is now my living room. And I am reminded that it’s very likely that it once housed a Jewish family who had been taken away by the French police that same day, but I don’t know that for sure.
In 1995, French President Jacques Chirac apologized for the complicit role that French police and civil servants played in the raid. Later, in 2017, President Emmanuel Macron added to Chirac’s acknowledgement by more specifically admitting the responsibility of the French State in the roundup and, in turn, the outcome of French Jews in the Holocaust.
Does that make me feel better about the French and their reputation for anti-semitism? Well, yes. Chirac was a child and Macron hadn’t yet been born, so neither are hardly to blame, yet they take responsibility for their ancestors. And by openly apologizing, they denounce any further anti-semitic sentiments or activity. So, yes, it does.
Saturday I went to see the new movie “J’Accuse” (An Officer and a Spy, in English), a film by Roman Polanski. It’s about French Captain Alfred Dreyfus, a Jewish artillery officer from Alsace, who was wrongfully convicted of treason in 1894 and imprisoned at Devil’s island in French Guiana for almost five years. It became known as “The Dreyfus Affair,” as symbolic of modern injustice based on antisemitism.
George Picquart is the real hero in the film (played by Jean Dujardin, brilliantly), the head of counter-espionage, who discovers the real culprit to be French army major Ferdinand Walsin Esterhazy, but the nation grossly divided, preferred to accuse the Jew and presented even further evidence (falsified) to convict him. Those on the side of Dreyfus became known as “Dreyfusards” (among them, Sarah Bernhardt, Anatole France, Henri Poincaré and Georges Clemenceau) and ultimately, Dreyfus was pardoned and released, then reinstated as a major in the army, but not after tremendous controversy and political posturing.
The film dares to expose the antisemitic sentiments of the French, while director Roman Polanski is under fire by the critics because of the new accusations of rape against him. Protestors blocked a preview of the film in a Latin Quarter cinema, however, my showing Saturday afternoon at the MK2 Bastille was a packed house in spite of the movement to boycott the film.
At Jim Haynes’ birthday dinner last Sunday night, I spoke with France 24’s film critic, Lisa Nesselson, about the film. She shared her own view — what she believes will be her “film of the year.” She and I agreed, that we must separate the artist from his work. If you begin to consider the bad conduct of all the creative geniuses out there, we’d eliminate the work of artists such as Pablo Picasso, Caravaggio, William Burroughs, Woody Allen, Bill Cosby, and a long, long list of men known for their great art, but their seriously bad behavior.
In my opinion, it’s more important to bring to light the subject of antisemitism, than worry about Roman Polanski’s guilt or not. Maybe I’m picking my battles, but while I believe we must separate the artist from his work (or hers), so we must separate the Jew from his (or hers)…meaning there’s no place for antisemitism in my world, France or anywhere.
A la prochaine…
Adrian Leeds Group
(by Lisa Anselmo)
P.S. Many thanks to everyone who voted in Expatriates Magazine’s Best of Paris 2019! The votes have been tabulated and the results will be released soon in a special edition of the magazine. We’ll be sure to let you know. Thanks again!