When I started reading Tatiana de Rosnay’s book Sarah’s Key, it brought back so many memories of the time when I was working on Steven Spielberg’s, The Shoah Project. Back in the mid-nineties I was fortunate enough to be a part of a film crew in Paris that video-taped testimonies of Holocaust victims who recounted their horrifying memories spent in concentration camps. For many, it was the first time that these survivors had ever told their stories. Events so horrendous that even many of their husbands, wives, or children had never heard what their loved ones had gone through.
The story of Sarah’s Key is a tale about the Vél’ d’Hiv which took place in Paris in 1942. It is a sore spot in the history of France and is seldom mentioned or taught in French schools. French police under the order of the Nazi regime were ordered to roundup Jewish men and women between the ages of 16 to 50 to be taken to the Vélodrome d’Hiver; a large indoor stadium for bicycle races in the 15th arrondissement of Paris.
On July 16 & 17, 1942 French police gathered over 13,000 Jewish men, women and children of all ages. Over 4000 were children twelve years-old and under, many of them were born in France. For several days in the stenching heat of summer these people were without food, water, bathroom facilities or medical attention. (Think of the Superdome in New Orleans during hurricane Katrina and it gives you an idea of the situation.) Unlike Katrina’s victims, however, these people were then deported to Auschwitz.
Tatiana de Rosnay brings this event to life in a parallel story between Julia, a young American journalist living her “American in Paris” dream in 2002 while married to a pompous Frenchman, and Sarah, a young Jewish girl ten years-old who is taken along with her family in the roundup in 1942.
Julia begins researching the Vél d’Hiv for an article she has to write commemorating the 60th anniversary; simultaneously we live the events through the eyes of ten year-old Sarah. The drama begins immediately when Sarah’s little brother, Michel, four years-old hides in their secret hiding place in the wall. Sarah locks him in so the police won’t find him as she and her family are taken away.
The young girl is seperated from her mother and father along with the other children when they are sent to a camp outside of Beaune-la-Rolande. Those who managed to endure the suffering and to survive, did so in vain as they were all later shipped in cattle cars and exterminated in Auschwitz. Sarah, because of her determination and concern for her little brother hidden away and waiting for her return, manages to escape. She must get to him at all cost or else he’ll die a slow excrutiating death with no food, no water and little air.
As the book progresses, the stories of Julia and Sarah begin to merge. The author captures the dangers of the time so poignantly and you feel the fear that this child is facing alone in a hostile world; hiding from the Nazis and the French police, not knowing which French citizens will lend her a hand and which ones will be more than willing to turn her over to the Gestapo.
The more Julia learns about Sarah’s plight she realizes that her husband’s family knows more than they’re willing to say, afterall the apartment she’s living in with her husband is the same apartment where Sarah lived with her younger brother Michel and their parents before they were taken away.
I much prefer de Rosnay’s writing of Sarah’s character. We identify with the Jewish child in a hostile Nazi world. Julia’s, on the other hand, is more stilted, although the author did make an authentic American with many of the American in Paris Syndromes (TAPS) to boot! Julia’s husband, however, lacks any depth to his character. We know we’re not suppose to like him, but rather than develop that emotion, the author gives us overkill.
Maya Muses: No spoiler here! I’ll let you read the book to find out what happens to Sarah’s brother Michel. In any case, it’s a great read and the first book that Tatiana de Rosnay has written in English. The book has now been translated into 22 languages and published in 30 countries. Film rights have been bought, but if you’re like me - the book is always so much better than the film!
Photo Credits: Google Images