It is not often one reads a book that provides a gripping story, a history lesson, and an opportunity to reflect on the consequences of choices. Zion Book Club members encountered such a book when they read “Sarah’s Key” by Tatiana de Rosnay. Although a work of fiction, the book is based on one of the most shameful acts of theVichycollaborationist government ofFranceduring World War II. To fulfill a Nazi decree, the Paris police department rounded up over 13,000 French Jews and held them in deplorable conditions in the Velodrome d’Hiver, a cycling stadium known by its abbreviated name Vel d’Hiv , before shipping them to an internment camp at Drancy and then to Auschwitz. Men, women, and children were brutally yanked from their homes to start a trip of terror, torture, and finally for many, death. Readers of “Sarah’s Key” experience this ordeal through the eyes and thoughts of 10-year old Sarah who, thinking she’d be away for only a short while, locks her 4-year old brother in a secret hiding place for safety and takes the key with her. The book also follows the life of American expatriate and journalist Julia Jarmond who married into a French family and has lived inParisfor many years. Julia researches the Vel d-Hiv roundup for an anniversary report and finds the French have done their best to repress the memory of this event. As she researches, she also finds a connection to her husband’s family.
De Rosnay employs the very effective technique of alternating chapters in the voices of Sarah and Julia so that the reader is following two story lines separated by many decades. It might be the only way to read a story such as Sarah’s since taking in all the horror and fear at once would be overwhelming, much as her experience was to her at the time. In fact, so wrenching was the tale that our readers compared at what page they began to cry. The characters are powerfully developed in the first half of the book as readers follow Sarah’s encounters with a French policeman who lived in her neighborhood, her escape and harrowing rescue by an older French couple, and her journey back toParisto open the closet in which she locked her brother.
Meanwhile Julia deals with a deteriorating relationship with her “total schmuck of a jerk husband” (as one reader eloquently described him and with which we all agreed), a precocious pre-teen daughter, family dynamics, and an unexpected pregnancy. Her search to find Sarah, if she is still alive, begins to dominate her life, and she goes to great lengths to track down any leads.
When Sarah’s chapters abruptly stopped, many readers felt the book lost its ability to transfix them and deteriorated into a mediocre story. Others felt it held their interest right to the final surprising revelation concerning Sarah. All our readers felt the story educated them about a time in history which they knew somewhat hazily. We have all read of the atrocities committed against Jews during World War II, but this book brought it to a very personal level. One reader shared books from theHolocaustMuseuminWashingtonD.C.which mentioned the Vel d’Hiv roundup as well as pictures used to teach a history class on the Holocaust. The black and white photos struck hard at your sense of justice. Another reader mentioned the non-violent resistance of King Christian X ofDenmarkwho donned a yellow star himself along with thousands of his countrymen when the Nazis decreed that Jews should be singled out. This resistance forced the Nazis to withdraw the decree.
The conditions inside the Vel d’Hiv also made readers harken back to the not-so-distance past of Hurricane Katrina and the poor souls escaping its wrath in the Louisiana Superdome, a preponderance of whom were poor African Americans. It was noted that one does not have to scratch very deeply on American society’s surface to reveal prejudice and bigotry against Jewish people. It was not that long ago that there were unwritten understandings that Jewish people only lived in certain sections of cities or that colleges did not accept Jewish students.
“Sarah’s Key” also inspired a bit of soul-searching as we readers wondered how we would have reacted under conditions of great fear. It is easy to think poorly of the French policemen, but could we have stood up to such orders even if it meant WE were going to internment camps? As one reader pointed out, psychologist Stanley Milgram ran an experiment back in the 1960’s to see how people can be persuaded to inflict pain on another; the lengths to which they would go with the right persuasion were incredible. We imagined how the Japanese Americans felt during World War II when we had internment camps in this country, certainly not one of our more stellar moments.
Parallels to events in Julia’s life could be seen, but her focus on finding Sarah or her descendants in order to share that someone remembered and cared seemed extreme to some readers. The resolution of Julia’s search was almost anticlimactic, and the naming of her new baby seemed somewhat trite, but all readers thought that “Sarah’s Key” was definitely a worthwhile read with five giving it two thumbs up, six giving it one thumb up, and one reader remaining neutral on the book. If you are looking for a good book in which to lose yourself one rainy afternoon, “Sarah’s Key” would be a good choice.