Many of us are familiar with the atrocities that took place in concentration camps and during the battles of World War II. However, I am fairly certain that not very many of us have ever heard of a horrific incident that began in Paris and cost 3,500 Jewish children their lives. The incident to which I am referring is the Vélodrome d’Hiver roundup, which occurred on July 16, 1942.
This atrocious event is what Tatiana de Rosnay’s fictional novel “Sarah’s Key” is based on. Alternating between a modern-day journalist researching this event and a child living through the torment of the 1942 roundup, this novel makes for a compelling and provocative read.
Julia Jarmond, an American journalist writing for a magazine in Paris, is assigned to cover the anniversary of the Vélodrome d’Hiver roundup. She starts the assignment with boredom and lackluster motivation, but is soon drawn into the story of Vél’ d’Hiv’ more than she could have ever imagined.
With a little research, Julia soon learns that the roundup involved the police force of Paris (while occupied by Germany) cooperating with the Nazi regime to collect all the Jewish families in certain areas of Paris and hold them prisoner. These families, including children and babies, were held at a stadium in the center of Paris for days without sufficient food or water before being sent to Auschwitz. Some escaped, but most either died at the stadium, committed suicide before being sent away or were killed in concentration camps.
While this is awful enough, Julia soon learns more details that make the event even more horrible. The stadium in which these people were held was in the heart of the city and was often used to hold sporting events — it was visible that these Jewish families were caged, but the French citizens didn’t take action.
This inaction is what spurs Julia to delve further into the project to discover that she has an even deeper connection to the event through a victim of the roundup – a little girl named Sarah Starzinski, the other person through whose eyes this story is told.
Sarah, a ten-year-old girl, is taken in the dead of night with her parents and bussed off to the stadium with thousands of other families. Her fearful account of the night is chilling, and the events that follow do not get any brighter. On the night the police come to take them away, Sarah hides her little brother in a secret cupboard in their closet (their special hiding place) and locks him away from the police, keeping the key with her.
Soon, Sarah realizes that she is not going to be able to go back and unlock the cupboard, and the reader is able to imagine the worst possible scenario. Besides being in constant turmoil over her little brother, Sarah is also forced to deal with the awful events surrounding her: watching her mother slowly retreat into despair, seeing people leap to their deaths to avoid the impending trip to concentration camps and being ripped from her parents when they are sent to Auschwitz. Sarah is able to escape the confines of the Vel’ d’Hiv’, but her life continues to be anything but happy.
As Sarah’s account of life as a Jew in hiding during WWII unfolds, the reader is propelled deeper into her connection to Julia. While I enjoyed Julia’s story somewhat, the real value of this book is truly in Sarah’s story. Julia is necessary to move the story forward, but there were moments in which I found myself skipping ahead to moments where we found out more about Sarah and her life.
After all, an American journalist’s divorce isn’t a strong enough plot to hold up against a girl searching for her brother in the middle of WWII. Overall, this was an amazing book, despite slips into boring moments. I was completely drawn in by Sarah and wanted to know as much about her and this event as I could.
It is fascinating because it provides a new angle to the historical perspective, something I wasn’t aware of. I don’t want to ruin the ending for you, but when you do find out the connection between Sarah and Julia, be prepared to cry, because it is truly heart-wrenching.