The mother pulled her daughter close to her. The girl could feel the woman’s heart beating through her dressing gown. She wanted to push her mother away. She wanted her mother to stand up straight and look at the men boldly, to stop cowering, to prevent her heart from beating like that, like a frightened animal’s. She wanted her mother to be brave.
Why did Bertrand take such pleasure in making me out to be the snide, prejudiced American, ever critical of the French? And why did I just stand there and let him get away with it? It had been funny, at one point. In the beginning of our marriage, it had been a classic joke, the kind that made both our American and French friends roar with laughter. In the beginning.
Her father looked down at her. He said her name again, very softly. His eyes were still wet, his eyelashes spiked with tears. He put his hand on the back of her neck.
“Be brave, my sweet love. Be brave, as brave as you can.”
She could not cry. Her fear was so great it seemed to engulf everything else, it seemed to suck up every single emotion within her, like a monstrous, powerful vacuum.
Through the bus’s dusty pane, she recognized one of them, the young red-haired one who had often helped her cross the street on her way home from school. She tapped on the glass to attract his attention. When his eyes locked onto hers, he quickly looked away. He seemed embarrassed, almost annoyed. She wondered why.
But she had seen. She knew what it was. A young woman, her mother’s age, and a small child. The woman had jumped, her child held close, from the highest railing.
From where the girl sat, she could see the dislocated body of the woman, the bloody skull of the child, sliced open like a ripe tomato.
The girl bent her head and cried.
As she looked at Eva and her mother, the girl wondered if her parents had been right to protect her from everything, if they had been right to keep disturbing, bad news away fro her. If they had been right not to explain why so many things had changed from them since the beginning of the war. Like when Eva’s husband never came back last year. He had disappeared. Where? Nobody would tell her. Nobody would explain. She hated being treated like a baby. She hated the voices being lowered when she entered the room.
If they had told her, if they had told her everything they knew, wouldn’t that have made today easier?
She couldn’t bear the idea of him waiting in the dark. He must be hungry, thirsty. His water had probably run out. And the battery on the flashlight. But anything was better than here, she thought. Anything was better than this hell, the stink, the heat, the dust, the people screaming, the people dying.
The one who smelled a warm, comforting, motherly smell: delicious cooking, fresh soap, clean linen. The one with the infectious laugh. The one who said that even if there was a war, they’d pull through, because they were a strong, good family, a family full of love.
That woman had little by little disappeared. She had become gaunt, and pale, and she never smiled or laughed. She smelled rank, bitter. Her hair had become brittle and dry, streaked with gray.
The girl felt like her mother was already dead.
In that sheltered, gentle life that seemed far away, the girl would have believed her mother. She used to believe everything her mother said. But in this harsh new world, the girl felt she had grown up. She felt older than her mother. She knew the other women were saying the truth. She knew the rumors were true. She did not know how to explain this to her mother. Her mother had become like a child.
“Please don’t worry about it,” I said. “I don’t use my married name.”
“It’s an American thing,” said Mamé. “Miss Jarmond is American.”
“Yes, I had noticed that,” said Véronique, in better spirits.
Noticed what? I felt like asking. My accent, my clothes, my shoes?
She held his gaze, not glancing down once. His eyes were a strange, yellowish color, like gold. His face was red with embarrassment, and she thought she felt him tremble. She said nothing, staring at him with all the contempt she could muster.
He could only look back at her, motionless. The girl smiled, a bitter smile for a child of ten, and brushed off his heavy hands.
She had grown up too much to be afraid anymore. She was no longer a baby. Her parents would be proud of her. That’s what she wanted them to be. Proud because she had escaped from that camp. Proud because she was going to Paris, to save her brother. Proud, because she wasn’t afraid.
She fell upon the tar with her teeth, gnawing at her mother’s minute stitches. Finally, the yellow piece of cloth fell away from the blouse. She looked at it. Big, black letters. JEW. She rolled it up in her hands.
“Doesn’t it look small, all of a sudden?” she said to Rachel.
All of a sudden, every ounce of hope she still harbored within her ran out. In the old lady’s eyes she read what she most dreaded. Michel was dead. Dead in the cupboard. She knew. It was too late. She had waited too long. He had not survived. He had not made it. He had died there, all alone, in the dark, with no food and no water, just the bear and the storybook, and he had trusted her, he had waited, he had probably called out to her, screamed her name again an again, “Sirka, Sirka, where are you! Where are you?” He was dead, Michel was dead. He was four years old, and he was dead, because of her.
“I know they are holding something back. I want to know what it is.”
“Be careful, Julia,” he repeated. He smiled, but his eyes remained serious. “You’re playing with Pandora’s box. Sometimes, it’s better not to open it. Sometimes, it’s better not to know.”
As I stood there, oblivious to the traffic, I felt I could almost see Sarah coming down the rue de Saintonge on that hot July morning, with her mother, and her father, and the policemen. Yes, I could see it all, I could see them being pushed into the garage, right here, where I now stood. I could see the sweet heart-shaped face, the incomprehension, the fear. The straight hair caught back in a bow, the slanted turquoise eyes. Sarah Starzynski. Was she still alive? She would be seventy today, I thought. No, she couldn’t be alive. She had disappeared off the face of the earth, with the rest of the Vel’ d’Hiv’ children. She had never come back from Auschwitz. She was a handful of dust.
We wandered around the small, plain room, gazing at photographs, articles, maps. There were some yellow stars, placed behind a glass panel. It was the first time I saw a real one. I felt impressed and sickened.
There were several names and dates on the side of the tombstone. I leaned forward for a closer look. Children. Barely two or three years old. Children who had died at the camp, in July and August 1942. Vel’ d’Hiv’ children.
I had always been acutely aware that everything I had read about the roundup was true. And yet, on that hot spring day, as I stood looking at the grave, it hit me. The whole reality of it hit me.
And I knew that I would no longer rest, no longer be at peace, until I found out precisely what had become of Sarah Starzynski.
Number 26 appeared in front of them. Nothing had changed in the street, she noticed. It was still the same calm, narrow road she had always known. How was it possible that entire lives could change, could be destroyed, and that streets and buildings remained the same, she wondered.
I longed for the birth, for the sensation of the baby’s head pressing down through me, for that unmistakable, pure, painful sensation of bringing a child into the world, albeit with pain, with tears. I wanted those tears. I wanted that pain. I did not want the pain of emptiness, the tears of a barren, scarred womb.
I thought of Sarah Starzynski, who had been Zoë’s age when horror came into her life.
I closed my eyes. But I could still see the moment when the policemen tore the children from the mothers at Beaune-la-Rolande. I could not get the image out of my mind.
I held Zoë close, so close she gasped.
I sat on the narrow bed and took the Sarah file out of my bag. Sarah was the only person I could bear thinking about right now. Finding her felt like a sacred mission, felt like the only possible way to keep my head up, to dispel the sadness in which my life had become immersed.
As the prime minister went on, my eyes moved over the crowd. Was there anyone here who knew and remembered Sarah Starzynski? Was she here herself? Right now, at this very moment? Was she here with a husband, a child, a grandchild? Behind me, in front of me? I carefully picked out women in their seventies, scanning wrinkled, solemn faces for the slanted green eyes. But I did not feel comfortable ogling these grieving strangers. I lowered my gaze.
After my conversation with my sister, I lay on the sofa for a long time, my hand folded over my stomach like a protective shield. Little by little, I felt vitality pumping back into me.
As ever, I thought of Sarah Starzynski, and of what I now knew. I had not needed to tape Gaspard Dufaure. Nor jot anything down. It was all written inside me.
Was it to do with Sarah, with the rue de Saintonge? Or was it just a belated coming-of-age? I could not tell. I only knew that I felt as if I had emerged from a long-lasting, mellow, protective fog. Now my senses were sharpened, keen. There was no fog. There was nothing mellow. There were only facts. Finding this man. Telling him his mother had never been forgotten by the Tézacs, by the Dufaures.
I cannot bear the weight of my past.
Yet I cannot throw away the key to your cupboard.
It is the only concrete thing that links me to you, apart from your grave.
Somehow he was no stranger to me, and more bizarre still, I felt even less a stranger to him. What had brought us together? My quest, my thirst for truth, my compassion for his mother? He knew nothing of me, knew nothing of my failing marriage, my near miscarriage in Lucca, my job, my life. What did I know of him, of his wife, his children, his career? His present was a mystery. But his past, his mother’s past, had been etched out to me like fiery torches along a dark path. And I longed to show this man that I cared, that what happened to his mother had altered my life.