The girl wondered: These policemen… didn’t they have families, too? Didn’t they have children? Children they went home to? How could they treat children this way? Were they told to do so, or did they act this way naturally? Were they in fact machines, not human beings? She looked closely at them. They seemed of flesh and bone. They were men. She couldn’t understand” –Sarah’s Key, Tatiana de Rosnay
Initial Thoughts: I remember seeing one of my friends read this book in high school. Since then, it has been on my to-read list for a few years now.
Paris, July 1942: Sarah, a ten year-old girl, is brutally arrested with her family by the French police in the Vel’ d’Hiv’ roundup, but not before she locks her younger brother in a cupboard in the family’s apartment, thinking that she will be back within a few hours.
Paris, May 2002: On Vel’ d’Hiv’s 60th anniversary, journalist Julia Jarmond is asked to write an article about this black day in France’s past. Through her contemporary investigation, she stumbles onto a trail of long-hidden family secrets that connect her to Sarah. Julia finds herself compelled to retrace the girl’s ordeal, from that terrible term in the Vel d’Hiv’, to the camps, and beyond. As she probes into Sarah’s past, she begins to question her own place in France, and to reevaluate her marriage and her life.” Goodreads.
About the Book
Title: Sarah’s Key (original title: Elle s’appelait Sarah)
Author: Tatiana de Rosnay
Year Published: 2007
Genres & Subjects: World War II, Paris, France, the Holocaust, Fiction, Historical fiction,
If you were expecting a book solely about the holocaust and concentration camps, you might find yourself disappointed. To me, Sarah’s Key appeared to be more about the aftermath of the second world war than it was about the events of the holocaust. In this regard, Sarah’s Key is a unique novel that explores reconciliation in a country whose past continues to haunt them years later.
Sarah’s Key is divided into two perspectives, one from the past (Sarah’s perspective) and one from the present (Julia’s perspective). Sarah, a ten-year-old at the time of the holocaust in 1942, was sent to the Vel d’Hiv’ with her family. Although Sarah is a fictional character, Jewish people living in Paris were arrested in July of 1942 and sent to the velodrome d’hiver (a large indoor stadium for cycling). They were locked up for days with unsanitary conditions. Then, the men, women, and children were separated before they were eventually taken to Auschwitz. Nearly all the children perished.
Julia’s story takes place in present day Paris, France, where she is assigned to work on an article about the Vel d’Hiv’ round-up for the sixtieth anniversary of the event. As Julia begins to research about the Vel d’Hiv’, she finds that either no one remembers, or people are unwilling to remember the past. Julia’s determination to bring the story of the Vel d’Hiv’ to the public leads her to Sarah’s story. As Julia traces Sarah’s story, she begins to reevaluate her life choices.
Unlike many of the people in the story, I had heard of the Vel d’Hiv’ round up before reading the book. When I was in high school, my history teacher showed my classmates and I the film The Round Up (Le Rafle) which is about the Vel d’Hiv’ round up. When reading the book, I remembered the images from the film of the thousands of people crammed into the velodrome.
Lately, I have been reading many novels about the second world war. Most of the novels I have read on the subject have a tendency to leave out how World War II has had an effect on the present. This novel had me wondering if we have paid too much attention to the facts of the war (like the number of casualties) rather than the lives that were touched by the war. I think that the second part of the story, Julia’s story, is focused on reconciliation and learning how to acknowledge the past. I really liked how Julia wasn’t a perfect character who always knew what to do or how to handle the information she was given. Many of the reviews I have read prior to reading the book complained about the amount of time spent on Julia’s problems rather than Sarah’s escape from the Nazis. In my opinion, I think that they missed the point. The book is more about Julia than it is about Sarah. It is about how to understand the past and move forward in the present day.
As for the writing, the book was well-written. I had read this book in English rather than in its original French language (title: Elle s’appelait Sarah). I did find the pacing of the story to be a little slow at times. I found the ending to be a little drawn out for my taste. Otherwise, I found the story to be rather compelling and unique.
I would recommend this book to those who enjoy historical fiction, especially historical fiction set during the second World War. I would also recommend a box of tissues nearby (you know, just in case).
Final rating: B
Until Next Time,