Like many stories of the Holocaust, Sarah’s Key explores the nature of bravery. De Rosnay presents a complex definition of bravery, demonstrating that the bravest acts are often the quietest, rather than the grandest. De Rosnay refuses to romanticize bravery and instead complicates the concept by showing that bravery need not be defined by its ability to effect change. On the contrary, brave acts can be simply symbolic, ineffective, or even personally devastating or destructive.
Although de Rosnay’s definition of bravery is expansive, some characters in the story demonstrate clear, conventional bravery. In defiance of Nazi-aligned French authority, for example, Jules and Geneviève harbor Sarah and her friend Rachel, who have themselves undertaken a brave escape from Beaune-la-Rolande. However, de Rosnay is deliberate in showing that these examples do not encompass the full range of what may constitute a brave act. For example, de Rosnay depicts Sarah’s poise as a form of bravery, carefully outlining how Sarah reacts with a sense of grace beyond her years to various Nazi authorities. Julia’s story also corroborates de Rosnay’s notion that acts of bravery often play out in silence, or in seemingly everyday affairs. Julia, whose charming-but-toxic husband wants her to terminate her unexpected pregnancy, remains true to her desire to have a second child, proving that she’s willing to bravely stand up for herself even if it means destroying her marriage. Another example of Julia’s quiet bravery is her dogged commitment to uncovering the Starzynskis’ story, despite the friction she knows it will cause in both her nuclear and extended family. She opposes the cultural norm of silence about the Holocaust, demonstrating that bravery can be enacted in times of peace just as in extraordinary historical circumstances.
Although these acts are clearly brave, de Rosnay refuses to allow readers to understand them as being straightforwardly positive. For instance, sometimes bravery fails. Rachel manages to escape from Beaune-la-Rolande with Sarah, but she is ultimately captured by the Nazis—a sobering turn of events that reminds readers that bravery does not ensure a good outcome. In addition, de Rosnay shows that courage sometimes stems from horror, thereby complicating conventional notions about the value of courage. Sarah’s poise allows her to be brave, but her maturity is a direct consequence of the ways in which she was deprived of a normal childhood and subjected to immense trauma by the circumstances of the war. Although her courage and bravery are badges of honor, it would certainly have been preferable that she never would have had to exhibit such courage in the first place, and that she never would have been robbed of a childhood. The novel thus suggests that courage and pain are inextricably linked.
Sarah’s brother Michel’s childish courage during the roundup shows that bravery can also be foolish. When the French police arrive at the Starzynski home, Sarah tries to convince Michel to come with the rest of the family, but he refuses, running instead to the secret cupboard. “I’m not afraid,” he tells Sarah. “You lock me in. They won’t get me.” Sarah complies, and Michel is trapped there until he dies. Michel thus deeply complicates the idea of bravery as a heroic—or even a tragically heroic—quality. Sarah regrets her decision to enable Michel’s act of resistance, and her survival coupled with Michel’s death raises the possibility that bravery is not always the “right” choice, nor is it always linked to wisdom or triumph.
Bravery Quotes in Sarah’s Key
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.