When I first saw the short description for Sarah’s Key by Tatiana de Rosnay, I thought it would be a cute book for young readers (well, as cute as Jewish victims during WWII can possibly be)…but oh, I was so wrong. It was a good book, but I wouldn’t say cute. More like tumultuous.
Sarah Starzynski—a 10-year-old Jew during the infamous 1942 Jewish roundup in Paris, France—is transported to Auschwitz with her parents. But the real drama starts when her little brother, Michel, refuses to leave when the police come, sneaking into their secret cubby to hide. Sarah, who thinks that they’ll all be home after a few hours, locks him in (after he tells her to). Neither understands what’s really happening.
Fast forward 60 years, and Julia Jarmond, an American journalist married to a Frenchman, starts researching the Vel’ d’Hiv Roundup for an article. She comes across Sarah’s name in the records, catapulting her into Sarah’s past which is also inextricably connected to the past of her husband’s family.
Some of my deepest, most tumultuous thoughts must be kept back for fear of ruining the story. But be prepared to see the cruelty of humanity, which is only outweighed by its goodness.
The Characters. Sarah, one of the main characters, haunts me. Her story, which is so much the story of countless other Jews, horrifies me. What she went through and how it affected her for the rest of her life, is a scar across the soul that we can never truly understand.
Julia haunts me in a different way. Her dedication to the truth, her obsession with the past doesn’t ruin her life—like you’d expect—but renews it. Granted, the story of her search for Sarah’s past is interspersed with parts of her own present, some of which are depressing. But for the most part, it’s a search that brings hope and truth.
Which makes me wonder…Is the truth the most important thing? If it changed your entire outlook on somebody you loved, would it be worth it? I tend to think that the truth is light, that it’s worth anything.
The Storyline. I love the dichotomy of modern-day with the past, of the brutal Jewish roundup and Julia’s search for information about it, of the reminiscences decades later of those who witnessed it. The way de Rosnay allowed the reader to discover Sarah’s truth as Julia discovered it was poignant and even painful. For a fictional character placed in a historical event, it felt awfully real.
The Writing. Again, I have no complaints. The writing was beautiful and heart-rending. But then, I expected nothing less with this subject matter:
“Michel. In my dreams, you come and get me. You take me by the hand and you lead me away. This life is too much for me to bear. I look at the key and I long for you and for the past. For the innocent, easy days before the war.”
“And so I write this for you, My Sarah. With the hope that one day, when you’re old enough, this story that lives with me, will live with you as well. When a story is told, it is not forgotten. It becomes something else, a memory of who we were; the hope of what we can become.”
Stories do become part of us. That’s the reason for all this reading: remembering what we were can help us become better people.
A Few Notes on the History:
I’ve never before heart of the Vel’ d’Hiv Roundup. Of all the reading I’ve done, it’s yet to come up. And I can imagine why. Who wants to remember not only the worst of yourself, but the worst of an entire country? Who wants to remember capitulating to evil to protect yourself?
That’s what this was, a French national movement to protect itself once, when the Vichy government gave up its citizens to the Nazis, and again, when it buried the truth.
Although the Nazis wanted the French Jews, it was the French police that not only rounded up them up, but offered more Jews than required. Before being taken to a refugee camp and then on to Auschwitz, the Jews were placed in the Vélodrome d’hiver (or the Vel’ d’Hiv), an indoor cycle track. There were 13,152 Jews, 4,000 of whom were children, believed to be rounded up. Nearly all were killed at Auschwitz.
I don’t judge what the French were willing to do to survive underneath the Nazi regime, but I’m deeply disappointed about what I’ve uncovered thus far. So many people were willing to sell out neighbors and friends to please the Germans…and yet so many were willing to help at the risk of their own lives. Not many children escaped from Auschwitz, but those who did were taken in by farmers who were willing to hide and feed them: the worst of humanity and the best; it’s the essence of mankind.