Sarah’s Key by Tatiana de Rosnay
Read: December 28th, 2013-Janury 3rd, 2014
Release Date: 2006
Publisher: St. Martin’s Press
“You’re playing with Pandora’s box. Sometimes it’s better not to open it. Sometimes, it’s better not to know.”
On July 16th, 1942, French Jews, numbering 13 thousand 152, were arrested and rounded up in an indoor bicycle track where they were confined for days without food or water. Later, they would all be taken to concentration camps where parents would be separated from their children, wives from their husbands, and sisters from their brothers. This event in history would later be known as Vel d’Hiv, a dark time in Frances history that many choose to forget, as it was not the Nazi’s who came for those people that day, but their own French comrades. Amidst those innocent faces rounded up for no other reason than being political scapegoats, is Sarah Starzynski. While Sarah is fictional, her painful plight is probably similar to many experiences that children faced during the years of the Holocaust. She was only ten when French policemen came to her family home and, in a careful panic, Sarah hid her younger brother in a secret bedroom cupboard under the guise that she would be back in a few hours to let him out. She never returned, neither did the others.
Sixty years later, Julia Jarmond, an American who fell in love with Paris, and then a Parisian, is a journalist for an American travel magazine tasked with writing an article about the sixtieth anniversary of the Vel d’Hiv roundup. The building has long since been demolished with a new building crouched in the shadows of the horrors that took place within its walls. During her research, Julia in talking with her husband’s grandmother, Mame (pronounced may-may) reveals that the family home Julia is about to move into was taken from a family of Jews who were in the roundup. The landlord told the family nothing, just that the previous tenants were never going to return.
This sparks Julia to find out who lived in the home before her husband’s family. Where did they go? Were they killed in the Holocaust? Or, did they escape? As she dives deeper and deeper into the mystery that is Vel d’Hiv, Julia finds horrific clues that point back to her family home and bring her closer to Sarah than she ever thought possible. The more Julia discovers about the past, the more her future starts to become hazy, blurring the lines between past and present. But, when Julia discovers the ultimate family secret accompanied by her own personal secret, life becomes far more difficult than Julia ever imagined, and Sarah becomes the key to putting it all back together.
Don’t hate me for reading another Holocaust book. I have been meaning to read this for years now, and I finally had the time to pluck it off the shelf. The story is told from Julia’s perspective, switching on and off to Sarah in the beginning of the story before remaining strictly Julia for the rest of the book. This book is emotional because, once again, we are dealing with a sensitive topic, particularly children in the Holocaust. Not only that, but my family is French and I have my own Mame who is in the last stage of Alzheimer’s, similar to that of the fictional Mame, except mine no longer has the ability to speak or do anything for herself. To say that this book became much more personal than I intended would be an understatement. I don’t talk about my own grandmother’s condition because it’s painful, and it’s something I would rather not think about, much like the French people in the story who would rather forget about the Vel d’Hiv. I had heard this nickname in passing during history classes in primary school, but I found that this book was extremely informational on the topic and not just fiction based. I was intrigued by the story and I wanted to know what happened to Sarah almost as bad as Julia. It was a wonderful read, but it was hard to swallow at certain points. Pacing is key in order to keep yourself from being overwhelmed by the amount of information Julia discovers. You start because of the mystery, but you continue because of the characters.