Tuesday, February 2, 2010

Sarah's Key

by Tatiana de Rosnay

I love stumbling upon a World War II/Holocaust novel that tells the story in a new way. Skeletons at the Feast, The Book Thief and The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society are such books, so is Sarah's Key. Told in 2 voices in 2 different time periods it is amesmerizing tragedy that sums up all that was horrible about this period in history.

Like many others, I had never heard of the great Velodrome d'Hiver roundup which took place in Paris on July 16, 1942. The French police rounded up Jewish families and sent them to the Velodrome, where they were held for several days with out basic necessities. The descriptions from the novel were reminiscent of the horror stories from the Superdome in New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina. From the Velodrome, they were sent to temporary camps and then on to concentration camps in Germany where almost none of them survived.

Sarah Starzynski's family is one of those rounded up. Trying to protect her younger brother, Sarah locks him in their secret hiding place and promises to return to get him, when it is safe. She doesn't. This begins Sarah's heartbreaking story to save her brother and redeem herself.

Julia Jarmond stumbles across Sarah's story while researching the Velodrome d'Hiver roundup 60 years later. While she expects to find sad, heart wrenching stories, nothing prepares her for just how close one of those stories be tied to her own family and change them forever.

The author does a brilliant job of telling the story from 1942 and 2002. Sarah's story is told via a third person narrator, which creates a detached, almost unbelievable quality to the telling of the story. I loved how it portrayed Sarah's shock at all that had happened to her and her family is just a few short days. Julia narrates her own story and her voice is so strong as she fights to discover Sarah's story as well how to resurrect her own life.

Be prepared to cry while reading this book. The central storyline itself is very moving and it will outrage you. However, the subplot lines involving Julia and her husband as well as her relationships with her husband's family will bring tears to your eyes as well. Both stories are so personal and the characters just tug at your heart, leaving you just a bit emotionally exhausted by the end.

I am using this book as my selection for the Social Justice Challenge. The topic for January was Religious Freedom. As always when I read a book about the Holocaust I can't help but question. Why the Jews? Why did the German people not help? Did the Allies really not know what was going on? Would I have done the same thing -- choose my own survival of those of my friends and neighbors? I know the historical answers to these questions - the blame placed on Jews for the loss of World War I and the resulting financial crisis in Germany, Hitler's propaganda and talent of persuavive speaking, but it is the moral issues I have a hard time with.

I have had the privilege to hear two Holocaust survivors speak as well as visit the Simon Weisenthal Museum in Los Angeles. There are not words to describe either experience. Horror, pity, guilt, amazement, disbelief -- none of these can adequately explain. Amazement comes closest. Amazement at the resilience of the human spirit, how such horrors can be overcome and that people who have suffered the unimaginable can still have faith in God and in each other.

Also read and reviewed for the Historical Fiction Challenge.

Rating - A+


  1. Antisemitism had very deep, pervasive roots in Europe -- I suspect the time was just right to rekindle it. :-( Wonderful review! And thank you for all your helpful, encouraging comments. They mean a lot.

  2. I thought I'd post a quick comment on a bit of the moral issue many Germans faced as I think it often goes overlooked (understandably) when we see the horrible consequences of the Holocaust. First off, I want to state that the Holocaust was horrendous and deplorable, and I feel very strongly that more people should have spoken out and acted against it - banded together against it. There's no question of that.

    But I think that once word of what was actually happening started trickling through, there was a great deal of terror and fear amongst the German people. After all, Hitler's brutal bullies were pervasive. They were teaching your children and your neighbors to spy on you, to inform. And their reactions were quick and terribly brutal.

    And speaking out or acting against the Nazis didn't just put you yourself in danger. If you were suspected of treason, your entire family (and any friends/neighbors suspected of helping) would be raped, abused and brutally tortured - often before your eyes. The old or the very young weren't spared - they made for even better examples. It's one thing to risk yourself to protect a group of others from persecution. It's another to actively be the cause of your family's suffering and death.

    I want to point out again that I don't think what happened was RIGHT. Just that I'm not sure that the 'right' moral answer was as black and white as people often make it out to be. Words cannot describe how monstrous the Holocaust was, and there was indeed a great deal of deplorable anti-Semitism that contributed.

    I, too, have spoken with Holocaust survivors and never cease to be amazed at their strength and resilience. When confronted with their trials, it's difficult not to point fingers at those we feel could have, should have prevented it. But I can't help but think that the moral dilemma facing the Germans was more difficult a matter than it is often made out to be. The almost certain deaths of those closest to you versus the tenuous possible survival of a larger group of Jews - some friends and neighbors, but many strangers. I think it's a difficult decision to make even in the abstract - and even more so when you are confronted daily with more evidence of brutality.

    I hope I haven't offended - I hoped only to raise an alternate perspective. I think it's these very dilemmas that make learning about the Holocaust valuable. The realization that the German people as a whole weren't monsters - and weren't that different from us. Only by truly understanding how difficult the decisions they faced were can we hope to prevent something similar happening again.

    Thank you for allowing me my say. I hope again that I have not offended anyone, and thanks for posting such a thought-provoking review.

  3. Lana, thanks for your very interesting comments. NO OFFENSE at all, in fact I agree with most of what you had to say.

    Hitler's progadanda machine was brilliant. He placed the blame for all the woes of the German people and placed it on the Jews. With anti-semitism in Europe so pervasive throughout their history, the propaganda machine made scapegoats out of a group of people who were easy targets.

    I honestly believe the average German citizen knew nothing or very little about what was going on with the Jews. And were very afraid to ask questions. They were just trying to survive themselves. My moral question is mostly for myself -- If I had lived in this place at this time would I have done anything differently. My ashamed answer is probably not.

    All of the Holocaust victims I have spoken with create very clear distinctions between the Nazis and the German citizens. They place blame on the Nazi machine and can even empathize with the plight of the German people during this time.

  4. Jenny,

    I think you make a good point that the Holocaust victims that I have heard from/read tend to distinguish clearly between Nazis and citizens. My point was more directed to what I feel is the oversimplification common in many schools which tends to equate German and Nazi. I've come to think of it as the 'American' version of the Holocaust (as distinguished from the European view of matters).

    Obviously, this is a sweeping generalization, but I think the way we are taught history in America early on encourages black/white distinctions when it comes to history - and I've noticed it particularly in this context.

    The moral question is a difficult one - I'm honestly not sure whether I would have had the courage to stand up against the Nazis, either. It's a really difficult situation.

  5. I've had this one on my wish list since it first came out. Great review.