SARAH’S Key is a novel about Sarah, a 10 year old girl, caught in the Vel’d’Hiv roundup in Paris during the summer of 1942. It is also the story of Julia Jarmond, an American journalist living in Paris in 2002, assigned to cover the 60th anniversary of the roundup by French authorities.
Jarmond is horrified to learn that 13,000 Jews, including thousands of children, were taken to a large indoor cycle track in the heart of Paris, as a holding space before loading all of the Jews onto buses for concentration camps. In the process of researching the event, Jarmond discovers how her husband’s French family is linked to the Vel’d’Hiv.
De Rosnay does an excellent job of seamlessly weaving the two fictional storylines together. Each story is compelling, but each one also becomes part of something larger than itself and gives the reader a sense of “the living Holocaust” — how its stories have both built and destroyed lives decades later; how the Holocaust and its characters will continue to web through our lives, and our children’s lives in ways that we cannot yet know.
Through an omniscient narrator, de Rosnay gives you a child’s perspective of this virtually unknown event. She describes how the loss of innocence begins on the night the French and Nazi police knock on the door.
“He (the policeman) spoke a perfect French. Then we are safe, thought the girl. If they are French, and not German, we are not in danger. If they are French, they will not harm us.”
Thus begins the breakdown of trust for one French girl.
Although it is a book of historical fiction, de Rosnay works hard to eliminate the misnomer that it was the Nazis who pulled French Jews out of their homes to the Vel’d’Hiv and then to the camps. And even though de Rosnay herself is French and not Jewish, she wants to right history on this point. This is a theme she succeeds in driving home through some horrible coincidences and imagery.
The girl’s loss of innocence is finally shattered moments later when she watches her mother freeze with fear.
“The girl could feel the woman’s heart beating through her dressing gown. She wanted to push her mother away. She wanted her mother to stand up straight and look at the men boldly, to stop cowering, to prevent her heart from beating like that, like a frightened animal’s. She wanted her mother to be brave.”
And here, de Rosnay plays on the innocence of a French Jewish girl.
EVEN though the girl sees that it is not the Nazis, but rather the French, taking them away, she is convinced that this will get worked out and her family will be back home soon. Because of this, she doesn’t think twice about locking her terrified, four-year-old brother in their special cubby, hidden away in his bedroom wall. Like an innocent 10-year-old, she believes she is protecting her brother. She slips the key in her pocket and promises she will come back for him.
De Rosnay alternates chapters between Sarah’s and Julia’s stories. Sarah’s story is about the tragic days in the Vel’d’Hiv, where women and children that she knows –– neighbors, her friends, and friends’ mothers — begin to have blank stares, or jump to their deaths.
Without any toilets or food, many die or simply give up in the chaos, until five days pass and a new agony is dealt with: being loaded onto buses for concentration camps.
Here you learn of the Parisians’ indifference at watching this scene. You learn of France’s special brand of horror at its camps, and of the unending humanness of a couple from the French countryside. All the while, the reader follows Sarah’s determination to unlock that cubby . . .
Julia’s story is that of a tenacious reporter and a lonely wife. She starts out by uncovering the story of the Vel’d’Hiv, but soon the 60-year-old event becomes her passion. Slowly, she begins to learn of her family’s connection, in both time and place, to the event that has consumed her. This brings on unexpected dramas into Julia’s life.
While Julia’s story is interesting, it is not nearly so realistic or riveting as Sarah’s. I would have loved to hear more dialogue or narration from Sarah. Still, the author did a creative job of converging the fragility and strength of both characters.
DE ROSNAY certainly leaves you with a new sense of history and a reconfirmed sense of humanity. She truly tests her characters’ capacity for good and evil. Victor Frankel’s words kept on resonating for me during certain chapters: “There are only two categories of people in the world, good and bad,” not good French or bad German, bad Polish or good Russian, and bad Orthodox Jew or good non-affiliated Jew. Rather, people are only good or bad based on their actions, not in affiliation with what their external identity is. (Frankel, Holocaust survivor and noted psychiatrist, writes this in his seminal work, Man’s Search for Meaning.)
I write this not only because of the characters she draws up in this novel, but, more importantly, because of de Rosnay’s own actions. Her desire to straighten out her own people’s history by creating such vivid imagery that will connect any reader to the plight of Paris Jewry in 1942 is a valiant act of a “good person.”