Sarah’s Key by Tatiana de Rosnay
De Rosnay’s U.S. debut fictionalizes the 1942 Paris roundups and deportations, in which thousands of Jewish families were arrested, held at the Vélodrome d’Hiver outside the city, then transported to Auschwitz. Forty-five-year-old Julia Jarmond, American by birth, moved to Paris when she was 20 and is married to the arrogant, unfaithful Bertrand Tézac, with whom she has an 11-year-old daughter. Julia writes for an American magazine and her editor assigns her to cover the 60th anniversary of the Vél’ d’Hiv’ roundups. Julia soon learns that the apartment she and Bertrand plan to move into was acquired by Bertrand’s family when its Jewish occupants were dispossessed and deported 60 years before. She resolves to find out what happened to the former occupants: Wladyslaw and Rywka Starzynski, parents of 10-year-old Sarah and four-year-old Michel. The more Julia discovers—especially about Sarah, the only member of the Starzynski family to survive—the more she uncovers about Bertrand’s family, about France and, finally, herself. Already translated into 15 languages, the novel is De Rosnay’s 10th (but her first written in English, her first language). It beautifully conveys Julia’s conflicting loyalties, and makes Sarah’s trials so riveting and her innocence so absorbing.
What countries come to mind when you think of the heinous events of the Holocaust and extermination of thousands of Jews during World War II?
I’d bet you a cookie that Paris France wasn’t on your short list. If you’re like me, I was not previously aware before reading this book, of the Paris roundups of 1942. Thousands of Jewish families (children and all) were arrested from their homes, held at the Vélodrome d’Hiver (Vel’ d’hiv for short) outside the city, then transported to Auschwitz internment camps for extermination. I knew France was involved in underground events along with Germany. Now I realize how large a roll French police played in the mass extermination of innocent Jews during the occupation- the black moment in France’s history. Immediately, I thought of the New Orlean’s SuperDome during Hurricane Katrina and how awful those conditions were. Newspaper articles compared the SuperDome to a ‘lawless concentration camp’ and I’ll never forget the headlines. Consider it a dramatically ironic parallel to the Holocaust. Dirty, fearful and exhausted. The stench of human feces, the close quarters, no access to the outside world; simply awful. Magnify your worst ideas exponentially; only then can you begin to grasp the atrocities that ensued for the folks trapped against their will at the Vel’ d’hiv. The difference- many of the folks who were temporarily displaced due to Katrina, which was an awful natural disaster, were provided aid and eventually survived. The same cannot be said for the innocent Jews of Paris, France who were held captive, then gassed, in the Vel’ d’hiv just for being Jewish. In Sarah’s Key, de Rosnay does a fabulous job weaving past (early 1942 WWII) and present (2002) together through her artful work. The book is paced just perfectly, switching between fictionalized 1942 (Sarah’s story) and 2002 (Julia’s story). I was glued to the pages and could NOT turn away. In Julia’s story, we follow an American-born journalist living in Paris with her family. In researching the 60th anniversary of the Vel’ d’hiv roundups for a work assignment, Julia learns through records that the apartment she and her husband plan to move into was once lived in by The Starzynski family. The Starzynski family along with thousands of others, were ripped from their apartments and exterminated after being held in the Vel’ d’hiv and shipped off to internment camps. The homes of these innocent families were then made available for whoever wanted to rent them immediately. Julia becomes fascinated by this idea and begins her quest to find information on Sarah Starzynski, the one family member whose name did not have additional information. Did Sarah escape the Vel’ d’Hiv alive? What happened to her? Was she still alive?
In Sarah’s story, we follow the 10-year-old as she escapes the Vel’ d’hiv. We don’t even know her name until almost halfway through the book. She’s “the girl” until she tells the kind farmers her name after they offer her refuge. This was strategically appropriate considering the topic. I felt de Rosnay kept Sarah “nameless” as a tool. It conveyed the pain of being ‘just another Jew’ carted off for extermination and the idea that you weren’t an individual with a name or with feelings because you were a Jew.
Sarah’s got an important reason to get back to her apartment, and fast! You won’t be able to turn the pages fast enough as Sarah and Julia’s lives intersect and Julia learns more secrets about her family, and herself as she deals with her own personal struggle. Probably the turning points for me were: when Julia felt her moment of clarity- when everything clicked. I absolutely loved the scene when she gets the heck out of that clinic and felt the momentum pick up even more, and then the first scene with William in the cafe. One criticism- I wish we would have continued to hear from Sarah periodically in the last third of the book. I know, I know. We’re not supposed to. But I really wanted to hear more 😦
I don’t want to give too much away because I know if you pick up this book, you will not put it down. But Sarah’s strength, Zoe’s maturity, and Julia’s drive to uncover the story are just three of the many reasons I loved this book and think you will too. Although painful to read at times, I recommend everyone read this book. Sarah’s Key brings the atrocities from the Vel’ d’Hiv to light so we ensure they NEVER happen again.
I can’t wait to check out other novels by Tatiana de Rosnay. Special thanks to two of my girlfriends, CCP and GFCB, for recommending this book.
20 down, 32 to go!
In progress- House Rules and Atonement (audiobook)