The Vel’ d’Hiv’

Today is 16 July. On this day in 1942, a roundup of Parisian Jewish men, women, and children began which would end, for most of them, in the crematoria at Auschwitz. It happens that today is the day that I finished the book Sarah’s Key, a novel tracing both a story from that time and contemporary France’s coming-to-terms with what happened in 1942.

WARNING: If you’re planning to read Sarah’s Key, what follows is a “spoiler” and you may want to skip this post.  The 3 links I’ve made are to reviews which won’t spoil the story for you.

It’s interesting to read a book about the Shoah (Holocaust) that was written by someone who is (I presume) not Jewish, in which the main character is not Jewish, and (other than the Sarah of the title) in which Jews figure mostly peripherally.  I wonder if non-Jewish readers would be more surprised about the big secret that ends the book.  [LAST CHANCE TO STOP READING BEFORE I REVEAL IT.]  I wasn’t.  I figured it out as soon as the new baby was introduced.

You see, at the beginning of the book, the young Jewish girl it’s about is nameless.  It’s a great device; from the moment she is ripped from her moorings, rounded up and treated as non-human, she loses her name.  I didn’t even notice this fact for many chapters, and when I did, I had to go back to determine that, indeed, no name had been given for her.  It didn’t even occur to me that of course her name was “Sarah,” given the title of the book.

After she is taken in by a couple who treat her once again as a human being, she reveals her name: Sirka.  Then she requests to be called Sirka no longer, for that is her baby name, and she has become too old for that; her name is Sarah.

Meanwhile, her story is moving inexorably toward an intersection with that of a contemporary American-French woman, whose name and whose family’s names we are all given.  No lack of name, no lack of person-hood, in her world.  In fact, the author’s thank-yous at the end of the book reveal that many of the names in the book were given as homage to relatives, friends, and supporters in the creation of this book.  Either that or there were an awful lot of coincidences.  But I think not.  I think that naming is something that this writer felt was very important in this book, or perhaps it’s something she always feels.

At the end of the book [ABSOLUTELY LAST CHANCE TO STOP], she reverts to not naming a child, the new child of the American-French woman.  “The baby,” “your sister,” “this monster” (a very realistic thing for her much older sister to call her!), “my daughter,” “the toddler.”  It didn’t take me long to notice the device, this second time.  But this time I knew why the name was being hidden.  There was only one possible name for this little baby girl.  I hadn’t seen it coming before — after all, the story included a wish for a baby boy to carry on a family name, and I found myself a little surprised when it turned out to be a girl despite this.  In retrospect, I noticed that the author had had the pregnant character refuse to learn the baby’s gender prior to its birth.  So she was trying to keep us in suspense, though I had missed the significance of that fact while reading it.

But for a Jew, what suspense could there be?  Once I noticed that the author deliberately was not using the little girl’s name, I knew what her name must be.  What do Jews do?  We name for relatives.  Ashkenazi Jews, such as I am, name traditionally for deceased relatives.  Perhaps for the (assumedly non-Jewish) author, the idea was a unique one, or new and strange.  Not for me.  It’s what my people do.

I have to tell you, it was still a powerful moment when she revealed it on the next-to-last page of the book.  After all, she had wound it up with a love story (at least I hope it was one), and I love love stories no matter how realistic (or not).  Powerful, too, was the idea of this man, whose own daughters were long-since named and grown, learning that this woman (with whom he might be in love) had named her new daughter after his dead mother.  So I cried, sure.  Stories like that move me.

But I wondered what it might have been like to come reading up to that next-to-last page with no idea what was coming.  I wondered if a non-Jewish reader would be more likely not to guess.

I wondered, as I said, if the author felt she’d come up with a unique and powerful idea.  She described the situation with deep emotional resonance, which I loved.  But she didn’t describe the *meaning* of this naming with nearly as much power as the naming actually had for me.  She has her character say: “There was no other name my daughter could have had.  She was … an echo to the other one, the other Sarah, to the little girl with the yellow star who had changed my life.”

Well of course.  But it’s way more than just “an echo.”  We don’t name our children to be echoes.  We name them to carry on the memory of our beloved dead, to honor and remember them.  Somehow it keeps them alive; they are not forgotten.

I use my middle initial in identifying myself and in my signature specifically because it it the initial of the name that my parents gave me for my great-grandma Sophie Weinberg Gordon, and I keep her alive by making sure her name is included.  One of the saddest things I feel sometimes is that some of my grandparents will not have anyone named after them, as far as I know.  Perhaps someone in their community was touched by them enough to do so.  I wish it so.  I wish I had more children to name after them.  (The ONLY reason I wish I had more children!)

We name for people we loved, whose lives touched ours, whose lives meant something to us; in doing so, we try to keep alive and pass on the meaning of those specific lives to at least one more generation.  When I say “the meaning,” I mean the fact that it matters that this person lived; I also mean the specific values and traits that they embodied and taught by their living.

We name our children to be connected in the web of family and community: A name from the past, given in the present, to a child who will travel on into their newly-begun future and, we hope, out-live us.

So it’s not just a reminder, not just an echo.  We name our children for someone because doing so gives the life of the person we are naming for, and also our lives, and also the life of our named-for children, deeper meaning.