By Tatiana de Rosnay
Completed November 10, 2010
I tip my hat to Tatiana de Rosnay for picking a “hidden” historical fact and shedding light on it. In Sarah’s Key, the hidden fact is actually an event – the round up of French Jews by French police on July 16, 1942. These French citizens were crammed into the Velodrome d’Hiver, an indoor bicycle arena, without food, water, sanitation or ventilation. Then, they were shuttled into cattle cars to concentration camps – first in France and then Poland. Of the 42,000 Jews rounded up that day, only 811 came home at the end of the war.
In Sarah’s Key, the reader follows young Sarah Starzynski, a 10-year-old French Jewish girl, who was part of the Vel’ d’Hiv roundup. As the police banged on her apartment door, she hid her little brother in a locked cabinet, assuming she would be back to rescue him. Unfortunately, Sarah didn’t make it back, and we follow her journey through the Vel d’Hiv and her imprisonment.
The book rotates between Sarah’s story and that of Julia, an American-born journalist living in Paris, who was researching the 60th anniversary of the Vel’ d’Hiv roundup for work. Julia takes an interest in the roundup when she learns that her husband’s grandmother’s apartment was occupied by a Jewish family who was imprisoned that fateful day. Through Julia’s research, the reader learns more about what the Jewish people faced and how French people ignored their participation in this horrendous event.
Where de Rosnay stumbled, though, is in her telling of Julia. Julia’s personal life, in my opinion, detracted from the story. Julia’s marriage to an egotistical French man, her unexpected pregnancy and predictable resolution to her situation did not enhance the story. I felt like I was watching Schindler’s List mixed with The Young and the Restless. I couldn’t reconcile the two themes.
So, I recommend the good parts of Sarah’s Key to readers. It’s a quick read, and if you skim through Julia’s sections, you’ll walk away with a solid understanding of another sad chapter in Jewish history. ( )