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Review of Novel, Sarah’s Key: Insights Into The Roundup of Parisian Jews in Holocaust

By Sharon Freed

Tatiana de Rosnay’s Sarah’s Key provides a heartbreaking and soul-destroying picture of the plight of French Jews during the Holocaust after a roundup of Parisian Jews in 1942.  The novel follows 10 year- old Sarah and her family as they are taken from their apartment, and suffer shared indignities with the 13,000 Jews who were herded into the Veledrome d’Hiv. For days, they were forced to exist under inhumane conditions with no food, water, or sanitary facilities. After days of torturous suffering, the families were sent to death camps, first the parents, and then the children. Very few survived.          

De Rosnay’s novel revolves around the parallel plot concept. The inner story centers around Sarah and her family, while the outer plot finds an American journalist, Julia Jarmond, (married to a pompous Frenchman), assigned by her magazine editor to write about the roundup, on its 60th anniversary.  The strength of the novel is certainly the retelling of the roundup and its results.  The episode is not commonly known, and de Rosnay certainly serves to educate readers about this shameful time in French history, not backing down in making it clear that the French gendarmes, not the Nazis, were actually involved in the arrests of their own French Jewish citizens.

While the story is horrifying, it is told in the voice of 10 year- old Sarah, who, upon learning that her family is being arrested, manages to hide her younger brother in a secret closet. She pockets the key, and promises that someone will come back soon to rescue him. Their father, aware of the possibility of the arrest of Jewish men, has hidden in the basement, and Sarah is certain that her father will emerge, and save his son.  Sarah is clearly a bright and sensitive child, but often   her portrayal is rather unbelievable. Certainly, during the Holocaust, children grew up quickly, living by their wits, surviving on their own, smuggling food and weapons out of ghettos, but Sarah’s thoughts and words are often far too philosophical and sophisticated to be real.

An interesting aspect of Holocaust memoirs and fiction is   that parents are often painted as saints. Not so in Sarah’s Key, as Sarah’s mother, not unexpectedly, falls apart in the Velderome, and cannot help herself, let alone her daughter. The reader appreciates this realistic view.

The more the journalist   investigates the story of Sarah’s family, the more she discovers how it is linked to the family of her husband, and the fact that both families somehow came to live in the same apartment.  It is this aspect of the novel that muddies the waters.  More of Sarah and her family is what the reader craves, rather than the musings of the journalist about her husband and marriage.  No one really cares about this plotline, and the novel would be more satisfying without it.

Nonetheless, Sarah’s Key is worth reading.  Sarah and her family, their experiences and their horrific suffering remind us of the evils in the world, and serve to keep alive the memories of Holocaust victims and survivors, and for that, we thank Tatiana de Rosnay. 

Sharon Freed is an educator at The Gray Academy, who teaches English and Social Studies.

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