"I didn't know!" she sobbed. "Papa, I didn't know, I thought we were coming back, I thought he'd be safe." Then she looked up at him, fury and pain in her voice, and pummeled her little fists against his chest. "You never told me, Papa, you never explained, you never told me about the danger, never! Why? You thought I was too small to understand, didn't you? You wanted to protect me? Is that what you were trying to do?"
Her father's face. She could no longer look at it. He gazed down at her with such despair, such sadness. Her tears washed the image of his face away. She cried into her palms, alone. Her father did not touch her. In those awful, lonely minutes, the girl understood. She was no longer a happy little ten-year-old girl. She was someone much older. Nothing would ever be the same again. For her. For her family. For her brother. (from Sarah's Key, page 57)
Sarah's Key is a heartbreaking novel that centers on a real but little known incident that occurred in France during World War II. The Vélodrome d'Hiver roundup on July 16, 1942, involved thousands of Jewish families being taken from their homes and housed for days in disgusting, degrading conditions in the Paris stadium before they were taken to the Auschwitz gas chambers. More than 4,000 Jewish children ages 2 to 12 were killed. The roundup is a stain on France's history, mainly because the French police -- not the Nazis -- pulled these families from their homes, and many of the children who perished were born in France.
Tatiana de Rosnay brings this tragedy to life in the story of Sarah, a 10-year-old girl who on the very first page is faced with the police pounding on the door. Her father, hoping to escape arrest, is not at home, but later joins Sarah and her mother. Sarah, assuming that she and her parents will be home in a matter of hours, tries to protect her younger brother by locking him in their secret hiding place -- a concealed cupboard in their bedroom wall -- with nothing but a flashlight, cushions, toys, books, and a flask of water. Sarah's parents know what is happening, the fate that likely awaits them, and their desperate and failed attempts to return to their home to rescue the boy broke my heart. Weeks later, Sarah manages to escape the camp and is determined to make her way back to Paris and to her brother...but will it be too late?
For about half of the book, the chapters alternate between Sarah's story and that of Julia Jarmond, an American journalist living in Paris with her French husband and daughter in 2002. She is working on a story about the roundup for the 60th commemoration. Julia throws herself into the investigation, and her heart is broken as she learns about all the dead children and parents, how their homes were quickly reoccupied, and how few people want to remember what happened. Meanwhile, she is struggling to save her marriage as she learns she is pregnant and her husband decides he is too old to be a father again. As she decides what to do with her husband's ultimatum -- have an abortion or our marriage is over -- she stumbles upon a link between her family and Sarah's.
Sarah's Key was a great read, but be ready to shed a few tears. De Rosnay does a great job building tension with regard to Sarah's story. Will she reach her brother in time? I can't imagine being in Sarah's or her parent's shoes, and I wouldn't want to. Once the fate of Sarah's brother is determined, de Rosnay tells the rest of the story from Julia's point of view, and this is where the book began to drag a bit. I was completely engrossed in Sarah's story, but Julia's story just wasn't as captivating. I'm not saying I didn't find Julia to be an interesting character, it's just that I found the scenes about her personal life a bit disrupting to the flow of the novel, and one would assume by the title that Sarah's story is the main focus of the book. De Rosnay resolved both plot lines by the end of the book, with the rest of the Sarah's story told through Julia's investigation. However, after learning what happened to Sarah after the war, the book continues to resolve Julia's issues, and I thought this part of the book could have been shortened.
Overall, Sarah's Key was an engaging, emotional read, and it brings to light a little known historical event. Sarah's story is among the saddest I've ever read, and while mostly devoid of hope, it seems authentic, which is important when dealing with subjects like the Holocaust.
War Through the Generations.
Disclosure: I received Sarah's Key as a gift from my husband. I can't believe it sat on my shelf for nearly a year!