Review: Sarah’s Key, by Tatiana de Rosnay

Sarah’s Key was gut-wrenching, and I read it in twelve hours because I quite literally could not put it down. To get the criticisms out of the way, yes, it’s a bit contrived, and no, Tatiana de Rosnay isn’t the best writer in the world. But all that aside, I could not recommend this novel more highly.

The book jumps back and forth between two stories—for the first half, at least: In the summer of 1942, in occupied Paris, a nine-year-old Jewish girl and her family are rounded up by the French police in the middle of the night, taken to the Vélodrome d’Hiver (the “Winter Velodrome” bike track and stadium) in the 15th arrondissement, and imprisoned there for five days before being carted by train to Drancy, an internment camp about an hour outside Paris. There, the children are separated from their parents; the adults are put on a direct line to Auschwitz and the children follow soon after. According to the French prefecture, approximately 13,000 Jews were arrested during what’s now known as the “Vél d’Hiv” roundup. Virtually none returned home. When the police knock on her family’s door on that fateful night, the girl locks her four-year-old brother in a cabinet they’d frequently used as a hiding space; ignorant of exactly what is happening or why, she promises to come back for him.  

Fast-forward to 2002, and an American journalist living in Paris is reporting on the 60th anniversary of the Vél d’Hiv. She becomes perhaps unduly fascinated with the roundup, and particularly with the fate of the family seized from what will become her new Parisian apartment.

I’ve lived in Paris for a year and a half now, and I fully and truly adore it—its winding, admittedly often maddeningly narrow streets; its grandeur; the sense of being surrounded by history, like an almost stifling ether, with each and every step you take. My heart still soars when I walk past the Eiffel Tower every day; during my morning runs in the Parc Monceau; even in packed, bustling sidewalk cafes, listening absently to the mellifluous prattlings of the native French tongue.

Paris is magnificent, but its dark (and consistently anti-Semitic) side is always present. Place du Trocadéro provides the most astounding views of the Eiffel Tower the city has to offer, but Adolf Hitler taking in that vista has become one of the iconic images of the Second World War. Place de l’École-Militaire, where Louis XIV founded France’s first military college, was also the site of Alfred Dreyfus’s humiliation in the stocks and pillories before he was imprisoned (The New Yorker actually published a great piece on the continued relevance of the Dreyfus scandal last year). And just past the Champ de Mars, in the 15th arrondissement, are two memorials to the Vél d’Hiv roundup. Most French people—and French schools—prefer to gloss over the entire French occupation, and still blame the Germans for everything. But it was the French police who rounded up French citizens in the summer of 1942, employing French trains to cart them to almost certain death in Poland.

The Vélodrome d’Hiver no longer stands—it was torn down in 1959—but a small plaque commemorates the spot, on the intersection of the boulevard de Grenelle and the rue Nélaton, just a ten-minute walk from where I attend class each day.

Intersection of the boulevard de Grenelle and the rue Nélaton

Vél d’Hiv memorial

Memorial plaque at the site of the former entrance to the Vélodrome d’Hiver

Walter Spitzer’s World War II memorial on the Quai de Grenelle: “The French Republic in homage to victims of racist and antisemitic persecutions and of crimes against humanity committed under the authority of the so-called ‘Government of the State of France.'”

The Vél d’Hiv Plaza

I visited these memorials on a typically cold, rainy day earlier this week. The Metro rumbled overhead and Parisians huddled under umbrellas strolled by, and such horrid history became reduced to this—an American girl standing in the rain, trying to conjure what occurred in this beautiful city she feels so lucky to be a part of. The plaques and the statues don’t do it justice. Nothing ever will.

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