Monday, November 10, 2008

Sarah's Key

Tatiana de Rosnay really painted herself into a corner when she decided on the structure of Sarah’s Key, her touching portrayal of one of the darkest incidents in French history, the July 16, 1942 roundup of Parisian Jews by the French police for their eventual transport to the Auschwitz death camp. De Rosnay chose to tell her tragic story by alternating the first person narrative of Sarah Starzynski, a little girl caught up in the roundup with her family, and Julia Jarmond a journalist assigned to do a story on the incident some sixty years later.

This structure worked well for the first half of the book, during which Julia researched what happened at the Vélodrome d'Hiver in alternating chapters with Sarah’s account of what she experienced and saw on the fateful day she was imprisoned in that indoor stadium with her mother and father. Then, at about the book’s midpoint, de Rosnay found it necessary to silence Sarah’s direct voice and to tell the rest of the story strictly through Julia and her efforts to determine Sarah’s ultimate fate.

This is the point at which the book loses its most dramatic and effective voice and its whole tone changes. The shock and horror that dominated the first part of the book soon evolve into a much less emotionally gripping tale of Julia’s determination to find out whether or not Sarah survived the war and, if so, what might have happened to her since.

That said, Sarah’s Key is a very good book and one that will be hard to forget, especially since it sheds light on an event that so many people themselves prefer to forget and would be happy enough that their children and grandchildren never learn about.

Sarah Starzynski was a typical Paris schoolgirl until the day that her mother sewed a yellow star on her school dress. Even then, things went along fairly normally until the morning when the family opened the door to French policemen who demanded that the family come with them. Sarah’s young brother, a spirited little boy, refused to go and managed to hide in a built-in wardrobe before the authorities saw him. Things took a horrible turn, however, when Sarah locked the hidden wardrobe and told her brother to remain there quietly until she could return for him in a few minutes. She slipped the key into her pocket and left the apartment with her parents, not for a moment thinking that she might never see the inside of her home again.

Sarah and her parents were taken to the Vélodrome d'Hiver where they and thousands of other French citizens, Jews all, were locked in with almost no food or water, hardly any place to sleep, and absolutely no toilet facilities. Old people died, babies died, newborns died or were born dead - and all of this happened without a German in sight; the French government was entirely in charge of the operation. Just when it seemed that things could get no worse, parents were separated from their children, no matter how young the children were, never to be seen again. Unimaginable as it is, the several thousand children were left on their own in the same conditions they had suffered with their parents.

Miraculously, Sarah managed to escape the camp to which the surviving children were sent, determined to get back to Paris to release her little brother from the hidden wardrobe before it was too late to save him.

Sixty years later, Julia Jarmond can hardly believe what she learns about the Vél d'Hiv and what some 450 French policemen did there for the Nazis at the instruction of the French government. She is even more shocked when she stumbles upon a link between her husband’s family and what happened that day, and dedicates herself to finding Sarah so that she can tell her that the family has not forgotten her, nor will they ever.

Sarah’s Key is about bigotry, collaboration, hatred, and looking the other way when evil presents itself. It is a horrible reminder of what supposedly good people are capable of in times of war - especially the willingness to turn on fellow citizens and neighbors of a different religion.

Sadly, it is also a reminder of how little has changed since July 16, 1942.

Rated at: 4.0

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