Culture Mom Book Club: Sarah’s Key by Tatiana Rosnay

Last night I hosted my book club, which consists of about 10 women, mostly former lawyers. I chose “Sarah’s Key” by Tatiana de Rosnay. It was interesting to see everyone’s reactions. I liked the book so much that I read it in just a few days, always a feat for me. This is a very sad, haunting book, whose images and impressions will linger with you long after you’ve set the book down. De Rosnay is a brilliant story teller, and she certainly had an important story to tell.

Set in two very different time periods, 1942 occupied France and in today’s Paris, the novel follows the stories of two very different women, and how their lives intersect. De Rosnay does this with purpose and brings the lives together half-way through the book, although they are never able to meet. Many people in my book group did not care for Julia’s story and found it to be self-indulgent on the author’s part. For me, it didn’t matter. De Rosnay was able to bring an important story to the mainstream public and I applaud her for it. It’s amazing that she found out about this part of history by accident and wrote a book about it, utilizing a fictionalized account of a girl and her family to make sense of this catastrophic part of French history. I really admire her.

The first protagonist is Sarah Starzynski, a ten-year-old girl, born in France to her Polish Jewish immigrant parents. She and her 4-year-old brother have been shielded from the events of War World II, and when their mom starts to sew yellow stars on their clothes, she thinks it is because they should be proud of being Jewish. So when the events of July 16, 1942 – the Vélodrome d’Hiver round-up (which I had not heard of) – unfold, her ignorance leads to heartbreak and extreme tragedy. Because the men who come to take them away are French policemen, not the Germans, Sarah lets her brother go to their “secret hiding place,” and takes the key with her. They both assume she’ll be home in a little while. The pain that they all experience once taken away to the stadium is vivid and felt through the author’s words. The mother and father seem to know immediately that they will never go back to open the cupboard and they suffer from the moment they find out what Sarah has done. Sarah has to learn to live with her decision, but I will not tell you what happens after they are taken away.

The main character in today’s Paris is Julia, an American journalist married to a Parisian man. Assigned to do a story on “the Vel d’Hiv” for its upcoming 50th anniversary, she faces ignorance and denial from the French almost everywhere she goes. Younger Frenchmen have never heard of it (or appear not to know about it), and her Parisian husband and his family don’t even want to talk about it.

Julia’s research, and Sarah’s story of her family’s treatment at the hands of the French policemen, combine for a riveting story. It is not all depressing though, as we also follow Julia’s own story as she is dealing with what she learns as her own marriage is ending and a new life is beginning.

This is an excellent book, so compelling and so well-written. Of course, not everyone in my book club agreed with me on this one. They all liked the story of the past, but found her story of her present indulgent and long. Nonetheless, I completely recommend this book to anyone who believes we must learn our history in order to not repeat it. The Holocaust should never be forgotten and it is important to remember that it only happened 60 years ago. This book will haunt me and stay with me forever.