Sarah Starzynski, an exuberant 10-year-old girl who lives with her parents and younger brother Michel in Paris in the summer of 1942, could never have imagined what horrors her young eyes would see.
During the Nazi occupation of France, raids on Jewish homes were becoming commonplace. In the past, the fathers of these families would be taken away, but on July 16, 1942, a more drastic practice was instituted --- entire families were now to be arrested. French police pounded on the Starzynskis’ door one morning. Fearing for her younger brother’s safety, Sarah guides Michel to a secret cupboard where they often played and locks him in, reassuring him she would be back to free him when the policemen have left, and she carefully pockets the key. The family is shocked when they are all ordered to leave their apartment, but they still maintain a shred of hope that this will end soon. After all, it’s the French police, not German soldiers. They wouldn’t let anything happen to them, would they?
What Sarah didn’t know at the time was that this particular day began the horrific Vel’ d’Hiv’ roundup, in which Jewish families were ripped from their homes and placed in an arena in the center of Paris, and later shipped off to concentration camps, some of which were located in France. (The code name for this barbaric ritual was, shockingly, “Operation Spring Breeze.”) The stricken Starzynski family look on in horror as they and many of their neighbors and friends are herded into an overcrowded arena, then shipped to work camps outside of the city. Sarah is fearful for her family and especially young Michel left behind in the secret cupboard. Can she risk a daring escape and get back to Paris in time to save him?
Julia Jarmond is a forty-something American journalist living in France for the past 25 years. Although she adapted to life there quite well, marrying a successful Parisian businessman and raising her daughter as a proper French young lady, she is constantly reminded of her stature as the “L’Americaine,” especially by her husband’s family. She and Bertrand recently inherited his grandparents’ apartment and are beginning renovations with the anticipation of continuing their happy lives there.
Due to the upcoming 60th anniversary of that fateful roundup of Jewish families in occupied Paris, Julia is given the assignment of writing a piece for her magazine about Vel’ d’Hiv’, considered to be a black mark on French history. Over 8,000 Jews were arrested over the two-day period, and more than half that number were children. Julia had never heard of Vel’ d’Hiv’ and was equally shocked to discover that very few French people knew all the facts, or if they did, were reluctant to speak about it. “Nobody remembers the Vel’ d’Hiv’ children, you know. Nobody’s interested,” she’s told. But as she delves further into her research, she uncovers a startling connection to young Sarah’s story and her own family.
Much like Irene Nemirovsky’s SUITE FRANCAISE and Jenna Blum’s THOSE WHO SAVE US, Tatiana de Rosnay’s compelling novel creates a dual storyline set against the horrific events of the Holocaust. At times heartbreaking and horrifying, SARAH’S KEY is an unforgettable, gripping read concerning one of the darkest times in history. The reader is transfixed by both Sarah’s story and modern-day Julia’s, and how they come together will leave you breathlessly enthralled. You will be hard-pressed to walk away from this book unchanged.
First published in hardcover in 2007 and now available in paperback, SARAH’S KEY is a natural for book clubs, where it surely will spark lively and riveting discussions, with the most likely questions being “How did I not know about this?” and “Why wasn’t I taught about this in school?” At once an enthralling and a revelatory read, this is a novel you won’t soon forget as it stays with you long after you’ve set the book down.
Reviewed by Bronwyn Miller on September 30, 2008