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A World Gone Mad

  • Nov 10, 2008
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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.

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More Sarah's Key reviews
review by . July 06, 2010
This is a story that was both emotionally difficult to read, yet important to our history. While the story itself is fiction, the historical events described in the book are sadly all true. The setting is during World War II, and the Vel d'Hiv Roundup, when over 10,000 children and their families were taken from French homes and sent to concentration camps. The Vel d’Hiv is not commonly known, as it was French police that sent the children away, not Nazi soldiers. Sarah’s Key tells …
Quick Tip by . July 02, 2010
Tear-jerker, but something everyone should remember.
review by . February 08, 2010
Do you choose books by their covers? I remember looking many times at Sara's Key in the store. The cover has a very French-looking image, slightly sepia-toned, of a small boy and girl running where parents might ask them to walk, with the Eiffel Tower standing tall in the distant sky. It intrigued me, but the words, such as "profoundly moving...morally challenging...nothing short of miraculous..." underneath weren't enough to encourage me to buy.      Luckily …
review by . November 26, 2008
A modern day American journalist becomes obsessed with the near-forgotten round up of Jews living in Paris in July 1942 (later to be sent to Auchwitz) and more specifically, the plight of a desperate young Jewish girl, Sarah.     This mesmerizing story unfolds through chapters bouncing between the perspectives of Julia (the journalist) and Sarah (the Jewish girl). Julia discovers a personal connection to the young girl that threatens her relationship between herself and her husband's …
review by . November 20, 2008
Tatiana de Rosnay has created a powerful addition to holocaust literature in this moving story of a child and a woman, half a century apart, linked by wrenching events in France during World War II. Many readers may have been unaware of the extent of collaboration between France's Vichy government and the German Nazi occupiers, and few are likely to have read of the round-up of Jews in Paris which comprises the core event in this book.    This is first rate fiction and de Rosnay …
review by . October 08, 2008
The story of Sarah captured my imagination for several days. I had anticipated a quick read, but I became so involved with Sarah and Julia, the main characters, that I was carried away by this book. It is an emotional and sometimes difficult novel, but well worth your time. The characters are very real, the story true to history, and the writing excellent.     I feel that the narrative flowed naturally through most of the story. The last few chapters were a bit forced, but the …
review by . October 07, 2008
Before reading this novel, I knew little about the efforts of the French government to round up and deport Jews from Paris; reading this fictional account was a chilling reminder of the horrors of the Holocaust. As modern-day protagonist Julia unravels the sad tale of Sarah, a ten year old Jewish girl taken from Paris during the Vel' d'Div', she also unravels the story of her French husband and his family. Working through unexpected life changes (including her husband's infidelity) and struggling …
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Starred Review.De Rosnay's U.S. debut fictionalizes the 1942 Paris roundups and deportations, in which thousands of Jewish families were arrested, held at the Vélodrome d'Hiver outside the city, then transported to Auschwitz. Forty-five-year-old Julia Jarmond, American by birth, moved to Paris when she was 20 and is married to the arrogant, unfaithful Bertrand Tézac, with whom she has an 11-year-old daughter. Julia writes for an American magazine and her editor assigns her to cover the 60th anniversary of the Vél' d'Hiv' roundups. Julia soon learns that the apartment she and Bertrand plan to move into was acquired by Bertrand's family when its Jewish occupants were dispossessed and deported 60 years before. She resolves to find out what happened to the former occupants: Wladyslaw and Rywka Starzynski, parents of 10-year-old Sarah and four-year-old Michel. The more Julia discovers—especially about Sarah, the only member of the Starzynski family to survive—the more she uncovers about Bertrand's family, about France and, finally, herself. Already translated into 15 languages, the novel is De Rosnay's 10th (but her first written in English, her first language). It beautifully conveys Julia's conflicting loyalties, and makes Sarah's trials so riveting, her innocence so absorbing, that the book is hard to put down.(July)
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ISBN-10: 0312370849
ISBN-13: 978-0312370848
Author: Tatiana de Rosnay
Genre: Literature & Fiction
Publisher: St. Martin's Griffin
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