Sarah's Key

19 April 2010 Books & Novels, Reviews No Comment

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Sarah’s Key
Author: Tatiana de Rosnay
Published: 2007
Dimensions: 320 pages (Paperback)
Genre: Fiction (Historical Fiction)

This review is written by Jess82 at AsianFanatics. This is a personal opinion and no personal attacks are intended.

Summary:
On July 16th & 17th, 1942, 1,129 men, 2,916 women, and 4,115 children—Jews—were arrested in Paris and the suburbs, held at the Vélodrome d’Hiver (Vel’ d’Hiv’) for days, then deported and assassinated at Auschwitz. Sarah’s Key revolves around this event as it follows the young Sarah Starzynski’s experience of it. The book begins on that early morning of the 16th when Sarah’s family was arrested, and when she locked her little brother in their secret hiding place, thinking she was coming right back. Very quickly she realizes the reality of what has happened to her and her family, as she faces the brutality of “La Grande Rafle” (the name given to this roundup). Through Sarah’s eyes, the reader is taken through the imprisonment at the Vel’ d’Hiv’ and the horrors of the French prison camp Beaune-la-Rolande; then follows Sarah through her escape and journey thereafter.

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Sarah’s story also links into the life of Julia Jarmond – a current-day journalist who is given the assignment to write about the Vel’ d’Hiv’ for its 60th commemoration. As Julia delves into researching it, she makes a side-discovery: that the apartment her husband acquired through his grandmother once belonged to a Jewish family who suddenly “disappeared” from there 60 years before. Taking this discovery very personally, Julia resolves to find out more about the family that lived there—a family by the name of Starzynski. As she does, her eyes are opened to things that change her life forever.

The chapters rotate between Sarah and Julia’s stories as they begin to intertwine and connect; and through Sarah we see first hand the events which Julia investigates, bringing a hauntingly clear picture of the Vel’ d’Hiv’ from both the past and present.

Review:
I have read countless books and seen many movies about the Holocaust, but I had never read or seen one that dealt with the Vel’ d’Hiv’. As much as this was an interesting fiction novel, I also learned much from it. Tatiana de Rosnay really brings the events of the Vel’ d’Hiv’ roundup to life again, as you so clearly see it through the eyes of the young and innocent Sarah. And as hard as it was to read about this event, I found I couldn’t put the book down. It is written in such a way that you can’t help but feel connected with the characters—feeling Sarah’s emotions, understanding Julia’s “obsession” with finding out the truth about the Starzynski family, etc. De Rosnay’s passion for this topic, and wanting to relay it through the characters, is unmistakable.

Although the story does look at several aspects and events in both Julia and Sarah’s lives—Julia’s marriage problems, facing another pregnancy, family issues; and Sarah’s guilt and personal struggle— its main focus is always brought back to the Vel’ d’Hiv’. And though this book is fictional, the Vel’ d’Hiv’ is very real, and all of the information concerning it in Sarah’s Key is absolutely historically accurate. Sarah may be a fictitious character, but, sadly, more than 4,000 children did go through what Sarah faced. Noting this, de Rosnay writes in the preface:
“This is not a historical work and has no intention of being one. It is my tribute to the children of the Vel’ d’Hiv’. The children who never came back. And the ones who survived to tell.”

Sarah’s Key is truly a must-read for all. For a debut novel, it is absolutely brilliant. It is engrossing, emotional, and riveting—a novel you won’t be able to put down. And most importantly, it is opening people’s eyes to the reality of what happened that fateful summer of 1942.
Reviewer’s Note: A historical look at the Vel’ d’Hiv’:
Before I read this book, I didn’t know the details of the Vel’ d’Hiv’ at all, and since reading Sarah’s Key I have researched a lot about it. I compiled some information to give an explanation of the event. So, if you’d like to know about the Vel’ d’Hiv’, please read on…

In occupied France during the summer of 1942, the Gestapo asked the French police to “deliver” a certain number of Jews between the ages of 16 and 50. The French police were so intent on deporting the maximum number of Jews that they decided to “improve” the orders, and arrested all the children as well. Over 4,000 children were taken by them. They were all first brought to the Vélodrome d’Hiver (known as the Vel’ d’Hiv,’ which was a famous indoor stadium where biking races were held). The conditions in the Vel’ d’Hiv’ were horrendous, as it was hot, had no toilet facilities, no place to sleep, and little food. For 6 days amidst mounting panic, the horrified prisoners—thousands of Jewish families—endured inhumane conditions; many tried to escape and were shot on the spot, while many others committed suicide. They were then sent to camps—Drancy (near Paris), and Pithiviers and Beaune-la-Rolande (known as the “Loiret Camps,” which were farther in the country). The Nazis had asked for the adults to be deported immediately, but not the children. Hence, the children were brutally torn away and separated from their mothers and fathers. The parents were deported straight to Auschwitz and gassed, and the children were left practically alone in horrifying conditions. It wasn’t until mid-August that the children were deported. They were first sent to Drancy, in order to mix with adults from there (so as not to raise suspicion among people about children traveling alone). From Drancy they went immediately to Auschwitz, and were sent directly to the gas chambers.

Jacques Chirac was the first president to ever draw attention to the role of the French government during the occupation and toward this roundup. He bravely addressed it in a speech in 1995, in which he said:
On 16 July, 1942, 450 policemen and gendarmes, French, under the authority of their leaders, obeyed the demands of the Nazis. That day in the capital and the Paris region, nearly 10,000 Jewish men, women, and children were arrested at home, in the early hours of the morning, and assembled at police stations… France, home of the Enlightenment and the Rights of Man, land of welcome and asylum, France committed that day the irreparable. Breaking its word, it delivered those it protected to their executioners.” – Jacques Chirac, July 16, 1995

Every year on July 16th, France holds a commemoration, lest anyone forget the events of the Vel’ d’Hiv’ roundup, which accounted for more than a quarter of the 42,000 Jews sent from France to Auschwitz in 1942 (of whom only 811 came home at the end of the war).

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