Author: Tatiana de Rosnay
Publisher: New York: St. Martin’s Griffin, 2007
Genre: Adult fiction
Audience Age: 16 and up
Themes/Topics: Holocaust, France’s role in deportation of Jews during World War II, Vélodrome d’Hiver roundup, truth, fear, justice
Opening Sentences: The girl was the first to hear the loud pounding on the door. Her room was closest to the entrance of the apartment. At first, dazed with sleep, she thought it was her father, coming up from his hiding place in the cellar. He’d forgotten his keys, and was impatient because nobody had heard his first, timid knock. But then came the voices, strong and brutal in the silence of the night. Nothing to do with her father. “Police! Open up! Now!”
Note: Despite the fact that one of the main characters is a girl who is ten at the beginning of the book, and despite the lovely cover illustration, do not be fooled into thinking this is a book for children. It most emphatically is not. It is a difficult, sobering, and ultimately moving book intended for adults. It is an important book for our time. Although this is fiction, the Vélodrome d’Hiver horror really occurred.
Synopsis: Ten-year-old Sarah and her parents are among the Jews rounded up in Paris on a terrifying night in July 1942. Sarah is sure there must be a mistake, and they will soon be home. She wants to keep her little brother safe, so she hides him in the cupboard and takes the key with her, promising she’ll be back for him soon.
They are taken to the Vélodrome d’Hiver, a facility for bicycle races in better days, and crowded in with at least 11,000 others — Jewish families who have been seized for no other reason than their Jewishness. Day after day goes by, with little food or water, and Sarah begins to realize she will not be home soon. She clutches the key in her pocket, thinking of her brother huddled in the tiny cupboard with his teddy bear, his favorite book, and very little water.
From the Vélodrome, they are herded into cattlecars and transported to one camp, then another. Men are separated from the women and children, and eventually, the women and children are separated. Sarah, taking the only possible chance to get back to her little brother, escapes and starts to try to make her way back to Paris.
While Sarah’s story is unfolding, a parallel story is interspersed in the pages, telling of current-day Julia, an American journalist married to a Frenchman, living and working in Paris, researching the roundup, and renovating her mother-in-law’s apartment, which the reader recognizes as the apartment where Sarah and her family lived before their lives turned into a hell on earth.
The parallel stories progress to the heartrending conclusion we know must come, and yet to at least a partial redemption as Julia learns more about Sarah and about herself.
Until I read this book, all I knew of France during the Second World War was the Occupation and the Resistance. The fact of the Vél d’Hiv roundup shocked, horrified and saddened me, but it didn’t negate the heroic efforts of those who resisted the horrors around them. It underlined for me the importance of resisting injustice, racism, and hate wherever we find it. This is a key message for our time, and an important book to read.
We need to learn from reading books like this, and we need to move forward and work to ensure that “Never Again” is not simply an empty phrase, but is meant to the very fiber of our beings and of our society.
For Further Enrichment: There is a section of reading group questions, historical information, and suggestions for further reading in the Reading Group Gold edition of the book.
On July 16, 1995, then French President Jacques Chirac dedicated a memorial to the men, women and children who were arrested on the night of July 16, 1942.
S is for Sarah’s Key. It is for Shock, Suffering and Sorrow. It is also for taking a Stand, for being a Support, for Speaking out. It is for Spirit, Staying power, Steadfastness and Strength against the odds.