“He closed his eyes, like so many other Parisians, during that terrible year of 1942. He had closed his eyes the day of the roundup, when he had seen all those people being driven away, packed on buses, taken God knows where. … My father said that we could never forget. Never. … And it has been there for me, for the past sixty years.”
The past never dies, the saying goes. And so it is in Sarah’s Key.
The book starts with the infamous Velodrome d’Hiver roundup, Vel’ d’Hiv for short. In 1942, over 13,000 Jews living in Paris were rounded up by the French police and taken to the Vel’ d’Hiv where they were held without food, water or sanitary facilities before being sent to concentration camps. After the war, the roundups were blamed entirely on the Nazis. It was only in 1995 that the then President Jacques Chirac apologized for the role played by the French police and bureaucrats.
Among the families taken away were the Starzynskis. Until that night, they believed that only the adult men were being taken and that the women and children would be left alone. But when the police knock on the Starzynskis’ door the night of 16 July, they are there to take away the entire family. Sarah, a 10-year-old, locks up her four-year-old brother Michel in a secret cupboard to keep him safe. She takes the key, thinking they will be back the next day.
But, of course, they do not return. Sarah and her parents are sent to a concentration camp in France where first, the men are separated from the women and children, and then the children are separated from their mothers. The adults were sent to Auschwitz.
Sarah cannot stop thinking of her little brother waiting for her and is determined to get back to him. She manages to escape from the camp with another girl, and the two girls are taken in by an old couple living nearby. But Sarah’s only thought is of her brother, waiting for her in the cupboard.
Sixty years after the roundup, Julia Jarmond, an American woman married to a Frenchman, is living in Paris. She works for an English-language paper and is asked by her editor to write an article on the Vel’ d’Hiv roundup for the 60th anniversary.
Julia sets out to do a short piece but learning about Sarah touches a chord: she has an 11-year-old daughter. As she researches into the fate of the Starzynskis—and especially Sarah—she uncovers a connection between the child and her husband’s family. Julia’s probing stirs old ghosts and long-buried secrets.
As Julia uncovers what happened to Sarah, she finds herself questioning her own relationships and re-evaluating her life.
Tatiana de Rosnay does not go into a lot of detail on what happened at the camps—there are many other books that do that better. Instead she focuses on a part of French history that is not very well known. And her story is not just about what happened in 1942, but the way it affected the people then and now. Well worth reading.