Although Sarah’s Key is over a decade old, it seems fairly new – as if I first heard about it the other day. It’s been on my to-read list for years but try as I might, I can’t possibly dent that continually growing pile without major life changes, a lottery win, a nanny, and limitless time on my hands. Thankfully, before Sarah’s Key was lost to the netherworld of my impossible to-read list, I was given a copy for Christmas. No more excuses. St. Martins Paperbacks | September, 2016 (first published 2006) | Paperback | 368 pp
Sarah’s Key provides alternating story lines in different eras. In one story, we follow young Sarah Starzynski in 1942 Paris during the infamous roundup of Parisian Jews under German occupation. The other follows Julia Jarmond in present day. She’s an American journalist living in Paris who became curious about the roundup when her magazine asked her to write about the sixtieth commemoration of the Vel’ d’Hiv, a giant stadium where the Jews were held in inhumane conditions before being transferred to Auschwitz or other camps to be gassed.
Sarah was only ten when the police came for her family. It wasn’t the Nazis but their own French policeman who rounded them up with little sympathy (as described in the book). Sarah didn’t really know what would happen because her family didn’t talk about it. She assumed that they would be back, so she locked her younger brother in a secret cupboard promising to return. She was taken to Vel’ d’Hiv with her mother and father and for days they languished without food or drink. Each moment that passed was agony; she could only think about her brother locked in the cupboard. Would he get out? Would he survive? Would he forgive her for not being able to come back?
In present day, Julia Jarmond learns more about the roundup and grows increasingly upset about the event. As her husband renovates the apartment that his family had owned for generations, she learns that his grandmother and grandfather had moved into that apartment in 1942, when there was a sudden availability of apartments created by the Jewish roundup. She instantly knew that a Jewish family had lived there. After being asked to stop looking into the matter, her father-in-law breaks down, and says that he will never forget the little girl who broke out of the camp and came to his new apartment – Sarah Starzynki. She haunted him.
It becomes a quest for Julia. She must know – what happened to Sarah?
While I knew about the roundup, I didn’t know many of the details, including the use of the Vel’ d’Hiv which was a stadium used for sports before it was turned internment camp. Thousands of Jews were packed into this stadium and in July, the heat must have been oppressive. It was unsanitary and little food and water were provided. Many died in the stadium, which was probably a blessing. After days of horrid conditions, they were then packed into cattle cars and sent to one of several camps just outside of Paris. These were secondary holding camps and from there, they were packed again into cattle cars and sent to the death camps in Poland for mass executions by gas. What happened at these secondary camps was truly horrific – something I didn’t know about: the parents were separated from the children and sent first to their deaths while the children were left alone, starving, and frightened in these camps.
An elderly local shares his horrific memory in the book:
“And one day, there was a noise. An awful noise. My parents used to live a distance from the camp. But we still heard it. A roar that went through the entire town. Went on all day. I heard my parents talking to the neighbors. That were saying that the mothers had been separated from the children, back at the camp.”
It had been the wailing of parents.
A theme in both story lines is the disbelief that local Parisians and police force had participated in the roundup while many stood by and looked in the other direction. People and historians that Julia spoke to kept referring to is as a great shame. She couldn’t believe that her husband’s family had moved into that apartment knowing full well that it had been recently vacated because of the roundup. While I would like to share in her admonishment, I couldn’t help but feel slightly defensive – and I’m not even French.
France was under German occupation. The Nazis were hanging people in the street thought to be Jewish sympathizers or part of the resistance every day. And many of these good Parisians did what they could through small acts of subterfuge. They knew the cost of getting caught helping, or not following orders: immediate execution. Most of the men were already gone and in POW camps in Germany – or killed. Paris was mostly filled with women, children, and the elderly. There was only so much that could be done under the killing machine occupation. For most, this was not something they wanted to go along with and yet I found the book to be highly accusatory.
I was far more interested in Sarah’s story, but I learned a lot from Julia’s research. A gut-wrenching book on the Jewish roundup in occupied France – if you plan on reading, get the tissues.