A book that makes you cry, Sarah’s Key by Tatiana De Rosnay
My future MIL gave me this book to read about a year ago because I expressed my love of WWII stories to her. I felt sad that it took me so long to get around to this book, and for that reason, I put it on my challenge list this year. I simply never had time for extra books during the challenge last year with everything else going on. I am so glad that I finally prioritized this book as it did provide me with a touching, sentimental journey through France’s WWII and uncovered an ugly facet of France’s past that I had never known about. It’s so imperative, now more than ever, to remember what this period in our shared history was like for so many people. We need to remember so that we do not repeat the mistakes of the past. We need to remember to keep ourselves and our countrymen from dwelling in hateful thoughts and pursuing hateful actions under the terrifying normalization of hate that our incoming President has already begun to poison our citizens with. We all must do our part to keep this insidiousness evil at bay, or we will suffer a tragedy and humiliation equal to that of the French citizens during the notorious Vel’ d’Hiv roundup.
In broad strokes, the Vel’ d’Hiv roundup is an actual historical event that is a particularly unpleasant one for the French. It remains hidden in the shadows of history as many French citizens are completely unaware that it even happened, or if they know if it, they don’t like to discuss it–it’s difficult for anyone to confront their silence and/or complicity during such an ugly event. During the roundup on that July day, French policemen–not Nazi soldiers (this is the really awful, ugly part for French citizens–this was not done on Nazi orders but on those of their own government) rounded up more than 13,000 of their own Jewish citizens (about 4,000 of whom were children) and placed them into the Velodrome d’Hiver, a stadium that was used for bicycle racing. They were placed into this stadium, which was made to hold far fewer people, into squalid conditions. They were not given food, water, or facilities for eliminating waste. Many of them were sick as a result, several were dying, and all were terrified. They were held there for days before being sent to Drancy, a refugee camp, where women and men were separated. The men were sent directly to Auschwitz and put to death. The women were later separated from children, some of them mere infants, and also sent to Auschwitz. The children were held with no adults and no care for days. Eventually, they too were sent to Auschwitz. There were very few survivors from this horrific event, and many French citizens at the time witnessed these people being rounded up, beaten, and taken away. They never saw them come back. It was a tragic event that scarred all who witnessed it and remains a point of contention in France’s history.
Sarah’s Key takes place during two historical periods that are expressed concurrently. One is during the Vel’ d’Hiv Roundup in Paris, July 1942. This story line centers upon the fate of a young girl, who is simply referred to as “the girl” for much of the story, and her family. The second story line follows journalist Julia Jarmond, an American transplant living with her family in Paris in the summer of 2002. She is responsible for completing an article reviewing the 60th anniversary of the Vel’ d’Hiv roundup, at which point she uncovers a dark hidden truth about her family’s involvement with the awful event and the intertwined lives of her family and that of the girl’s that continues to echo the consequences of that fateful day. The narrative structure is set with shifting points of view–each chapter alternates between Julia and the girl.
The main criticism I read surround this novel is that most readers dislike Julia. I admit, she’s annoying. She complains about never fitting in with the French people, about her philandering, sarcastic asshole of a husband, etc. People feel that the novel would have been better without her. While admittedly, I wanted to skip her parts and go to the girl’s, I also feel she’s a necessary facet of the story. She grounds the tragedy into the “current” world, illustrating how this tragic event still impacts people 60 years after it occurred. She also demonstrates the struggle descendants of Holocaust survivors undergo when attempting to understand what their family went through and honor their memories for the horrible things they endured. So yes, she is annoying, but I feel she’s also necessary. The girl’s story is much more poignant as we have a firsthand account of the horrific events that occurred and the aftermath of the choices that people made–some of which haunt them for the rest of their lives.
Without giving too much away, I would definitely recommend this novel to people who like historical fiction from the World War II era. It won’t be the best one you read, but it will be worth your time.