Today marks the 75th anniversary of the Vél D’Hiv, the heartbreaking mass roundup and arrest of Jewish citizens in France as part of the Holocaust. On Nazi orders carried out by French soldiers, French Jews were forced from their homes and brought to and confined in a velodrome designed for use in the winter. After days with little food or water, the Jews were taken to forced labor camps and, eventually, the Auschwitz concentration camp in Germany, where they were gassed. This roundup designed to eradicate Jews in both the free and occupied zones of France is one of the most painful yet least-known horrors in the history of the country.

A brilliant way to learn more about the Vél D’Hiv and the heart-wrenching experiences of its victims is by reading “Sarah’s Key” by French writer Tatiana de Rosnay. The novel sheds light on the Vél D’Hiv and its lasting impact by moving between two timelines, one taking place in 1942 and the other in 2002. In alternating chapters, de Rosnay juxtaposes the thoughts of a young girl whose family is rounded up with that of a modern-day, middle-aged journalist who is tasked with writing about the event’s 60th anniversary. “Sarah’s Key” is powerful in that it not only creates a compelling storyline but also brings attention to the Vél D’Hiv, reminding readers of the often-forgotten tragedy.

De Rosnay uses the characters in her novel to help readers better understand the realities and atrocities of the Vél D’Hiv. For example, the book begins when 10-year-old Sarah Starzynski is woken by the sound of French soldiers pounding on her door and learns that she must quickly pack a bag and leave her home. Afraid, Sarah locks her 4-year-old brother in a hidden cabinet, sure that she is saving him from the frightening soldiers and equally certain that she will be back to free him soon. As her family is ushered onto a city bus and driven to the Vél D’Hiv, it becomes clear to Sarah that she has been severely misinformed about the gravity of her circumstances. Learning about the Vél D’Hiv through the eyes of a child allows readers to view the situation through a lens of innocence: Sarah “couldn’t imagine why there was such a difference between those children and her. She couldn’t imagine why she and all these other people with her had to be treated this way. Who decided this, and what for?”

The present-day parallel storyline follows journalist Julia Jarmond, an American who has lived in Paris for 25 years. Throughout the novel, Jarmond does extensive research on the roundup, visits the former sites of the Vél D’Hiv and the work camps and conducts interviews with experts and witnesses. Not only do readers learn about her research and the current views of the historical event, but they also see her grapple with her newfound knowledge as it infiltrates her thoughts and weaves its way through her personal life. She has a particular interest in the children of the Vél D’Hiv; de Rosnay writes, “There had been over four thousand Jewish children penned in the Vél d’Hiv, aged between two and twelve. Most of the children were French, born in France. None of them came back from Auschwitz.”

The book’s greatest strength lies in its ability to draw readers into Sarah’s heartbreaking story and the present-day struggles of Jarmond as she works to write her article, while also incorporating an incredible amount of factual information, including the fates of many of the historic sites related to the event. For example, Drancy, the most well-known French work camp used during the roundup, has been turned into a housing complex and is now filled with young adults and their children, most of whom know nothing about the horrors that occurred there years ago. As she visits sites such as these, Jarmond wonders, “How was it possible that entire lives could change, could be destroyed, and that streets and buildings remained the same?”

Where the novel falls short is in its tendency to explore Jarmond’s life in unnecessary depth: Readers learn much about her family life, her experiences with friends and her disintegrating relationship with her husband, yet these personal details add little to the story. Although de Rosnay attempts to create a relatable character in Jarmond, it is Sarah’s experience that truly compels the reader. The book would have been better served if de Rosnay had further developed the characters in Sarah’s portion of the novel, rather than explored Jarmond’s story in such detail.

Despite its shortcomings, “Sarah’s Key” is a book that you will want to read in one sitting. Sarah’s story will remain in your mind long after you read it, lingering like a bittersweet aftertaste; readers will gain newfound knowledge of a harrowing part of history yet will enjoy de Rosnay’s talented and emotive writing. This novel powerfully demonstrates the intense hold that the past has over the present, showing that nothing can truly be forgotten.

alexandraheadshotAlexandra Brunjes is a sophomore in the College. Summer Reading appears every other Sunday. 

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