A friend recently handed me her copy of Sarah’s Key and said, “This book is amazing. You have to read it.” So I really have her to thank. This is a very good book, compelling and moving. The story takes off from an incident in July 16, 1942, when French police officers rounded up thousands of Jews and held them captive at the Vélodrome d’Hiver before sending them to Auschwitz. Ten-year-old Sarah and her parents are among the families captured in the Vel’ d’Hiv’ incident. Before she is taken away, Sarah locks her younger brother in their secret cupboard and promises she’ll come back for him.
Sixty years later, Julia Jarmond, an American journalist in France researching Vel’ d’Hiv’ discovers Sarah’s story, its link to her own life, and dedicates herself to finding out what became of Sarah and her brother. Sarah’s Key is very much a story with a message, if not a moral, and I think it’s best expressed in a scene where a man asks Julia why she wants to track Sarah down. When Julia admits she wants to apologize, the man asks why, considering Julia was in no way involved with Vel’ d’Hiv’. Julia replies that she’s “sorry for being forty-five years old and not knowing [about Vel’ d’Hiv’].”
The novel emphasizes that the Vel’ d’Hiv’ roundup has been whitewashed by history into a Nazi action, when in fact, it was French police officers who captured their own countrymen. As well, the fact that it was mostly children who were taken to Vel’ d’Hiv’ has been glossed over by sound byte speeches. Julia’s French husband Bertrand appears emblematic of the French attitude to this point in history when he tells Julia that it’s happened so long ago that no one cares about the incident and will only be annoyed that Julia has dug it all up again.
Bertrand refers scornfully to Julia’s American disdain for France and French ideas, and on one hand, her judgmental attitude does get somewhat heavy-handed. She is outraged that French Christians kept a blind eye on the incident, and demands to know why Bertrand’s grandparents, for example, could move into an apartment vacated by Jews captured during Vel’ d’Hiv’ without feeling guilty. While I understand, and also feel her anger at the injustice the Vel’ d’Hiv’ Jews experienced, I found Julia’s self-righteousness annoying at times, and Julia’s desire to track down Sarah just to ease her own conscience at “not knowing” to be self-aggrandizing.
On the other hand, however, I still found Julia’s story very compelling. More than just going on a quest to learn about Vel’ d’Hiv’ and find Sarah, Julia struggles to figure out her own life, particularly her relationship with Bertrand and the development of her own identity as an individual. She acknowledges the futility of her search – even if she finds Sarah or Sarah’s descendants, all she can do is assure them that Vel’ d’Hiv’ is remembered, by her at least, if not in French history in general, and this in no way compensates for what the Jews in Vel’ d’Hiv’ suffered.
I think Sarah’s Key ultimately delivers a powerful message because Julia’s attempt to make up for Vel’ d’Hiv’ is a desire a lot of us have had about various atrocities in history. There are a few heroes who make a major difference, and right historical wrongs. But there are also many individuals who, like Julia, do their part in very personal, often unnoticed ways. The most important first step is to acknowledge an injustice, and make sure it isn’t forgotten. That’s what De Rosnay has done with writing Sarah’s Key, and that’s what Julia attempts to do in her own way in the novel. The inscription on the Vel’ d’Hiv’ memorial reads “Never forget,” and with Sarah and Julia’s stories, Tatiana De Rosnay ensures we never do.