Sarah’s Key by Tatiana de Rosnay
Fiction that interweaves historical fact, especially the World War I or II time periods, are among my favorite reads (and I enjoy writing them as well). Sarah’s Key fits that bill very well, mixing the tragic events of the holocaust in Paris in 1942 with a modern journalist seeking her own truths in the past and present. Yet another excellent choice by my wife who suggested this book.
The titular Sarah was a young girl who was part of the round up of Jews in Paris in July of 1942 known as the Vel’ d’Hiv (strangely enough, code named Operation Spring Breeze). French policemen were complicit in the round up (later apologized for by French President Jacques Chirac in 1995), where several thousand Jews were kept with no food, water or facilities for days, then shipped to camps outside of Paris, then onto Auschwitz and other concentration camps. As with the Bombing of Bari, Italy, this remains a little known episode of World War II, outside of those it directly affected.
Sarah and her parents are taken, but Sarah’s younger brother Michel hinds in a cupboard, locked with a key that Sarah keeps promising to come back for him. After being separated from her parents, she escapes from one of the camps and makes her way back to Paris.
In modern day Paris, Julia Jarmond, struggling with a complex life of her own, is assigned to do a story on the anniversary of the Vel’ d’Hiv. Her research turns up an unexpected link between the French family she married into and Sarah. Researching and putting the pieces together causes strife in her life and the lives of those she meets during her investigation.
Ms. de Rosnay weaves together the two story lines well, and her descriptions of Paris and Parisians reminded me why I enjoy that city so much; though Ms. Rosnay was born in Paris, the character of Julia is American, with that “always on the outside looking in” feeling one gets when living in a different country, no matter how long you stay. The horrors of the Vel d’Hiv are realistically imagined from the perspective of a ten year old child.
This is a tough, sad read in places, but to accurately depict the events of that time, it has to be.