Sarah’s Key is the story of Julia Jarmond, an American journalist living in Paris. She is given as an assignment the commemoration of the Vel’ d’Hiv’ on its sixtieth anniversary, something that she knew nothing about. I regrettable admit that I know nothing about it myself (and as a modern history major in college focusing on the post WWII era that is surprising). Anyway she starts investigating and learns all about this dark time in French history where the Vichy government (the fascist regime in charge) instructs the French police to go door-to-door to round up the Jewish families living in the Paris suburbs. They were arrested and imprisoned in the stadium Velodrome D’Hiver (Vel’ d’Hiv’) in appalling conditions before being shipped to holding camps where the parents were separated from the kids all of whom eventually sent directly to Auschwitz. While she investigates, Julia learns that her aloof French husband’s family is somehow connected with the second protagonist, Sarah, a young Jewish girl who is arrested in the Vel’ d’Hiv round-up. Sarah intent on protecting her brother locks him in a cupboard promising she will be back for him. But as time goes by she realizes that is less and less likely unless she can break out of the camp and find her way back to Paris. Julia becomes engrossed in nothing but learning all about Sarah and telling her about how her in-laws helped her. The more she learns, the more her personal life falls apart.
So when I originally picked this book up I thought it fit the mold of most books I read: historical fiction and mystery. But the more I read the book became less mysterious and more emotional. It was like reading someone’s depressing family history, in a good way. I became invested in these characters, and found myself constantly reading so that I could learn more about what would happen to Sarah, her brother, and Julia. New and sad developments threw me for a loop. I almost cried at one point. It truly was an emotional masterpiece. It really captures the terror and atrocity that these families went through.
The book brings up a big debate that many European people have faced over the past seventy years. Is it better to remember or to forget? There is a line in the book that states “no one wants to be reminded of that, nobody wants to think about that.” And while that is true, and to use an old cliché ignorance is bliss, but how can those who were affected by such tragedies easily forget. It took decades for the governments of these countries to admit to their parts in these atrocities of humanity. Another theme that the book centers upon is the need to make right the errors of the past, to somehow make up for what was done and your part in it, whatever that may be.
This book not only explains the terrible events of the Vel’ D’Hiv and the Vichy government but does it in a way so emotionally charged it’s hard to forget. It is told almost effortlessly and reads more like a journal than a fictional story. The beginning is a little bit annoying as it switches back and forth between Julia and Sarah, but by page 160 it focuses entirely on Julia and her search for Sarah. While it is truly heartbreaking at times, I recommend this book to all students of history who want to learn about a terrible time in the past, especially if you have an interest in World War II or the Holocaust. Again with the clichés, those who fail to remember history are doomed to repeat it.