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Review: Sarah’s Key by Tatiana De Rosnay

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By Naomi Daniel

I first came across this book in June, last year, when it was given to me as a birthday gift. Not knowing the beauty that would spill from its pages, it simply joined the ever-increasing library of books in my bedroom, collecting dust on my shelf. After remembering it existed, I had to rearrange my top five books of all time.

This is a book I will never again forget, a story so vivid in memory, so pure in its innocence that it becomes impossible to stop thinking about. I have read many books about the Holocaust, but to me, this one is by far the most incredible.

Poster for Sarah's Key book

Sarah’s Key

Sarah’s Key is a heart wrenching narrative that revisits the 1942 Vel d’Hiv Roundup of Jews in German-occupied Paris, during World War Two. It is written from two perspectives that flow parallel to each other throughout. The first voice is Sarah’s. When the French police come knocking for the Jewish Starzynski family, 10 year old Sarah locks her younger brother Michel in a cupboard, telling him to hide until they return, which she believes will be shortly afterwards.

Instead, she is transported to the Velodrome d’Hiver with her parents, where they are held in inhumane conditions with the other 7000 Jews. The reader then experiences the devastating separation between the parents and their children, as the adults are sent to Auschwitz-Birkenau, a death camp in Poland that facilitated Hitler’s ‘Final Solution’ to the Jewish question. It is reported that over 1.1 million ‘undesirables’ were murdered in Auschwitz’s gas chambers.

Sarah never sees her parents again. Obsessed with the fear of saving Michel, she attempts to escape and ends up in the Dufaure household. This family take pity on her and agree to take her back to Paris in order to help find her brother. But many weeks have passed during this time and when Sarah returns to her home, a new family have moved in. When she unlocks the cupboard, nothing can prepare her or the reader for what she sees. Rosney attempts to capture the sheer horror and grief of the Jewish nation here. The film adaption also presents this scene incredibly, as all we hear is the screams of Sarah, who is eventually carried away.

Joanna Millan receiving flowers after her talk at MMU

Joanna Millan at MMU

The second voice is Julia Jarmond’s, an American journalist investigating the Jewish round-up in Paris. After carrying out extensive research, she discovers that the flat her French husband has inherited from his grandparents, belonged to a Jewish family in 1942, the same time as the round-up. It was common that Jewish households were taken over immediately after their deportation. Motivated by guilt and horror, she begins an obsessive journey to track down the previous owners, if they have survived. Two children, previous inhabitants, Sarah and Michel are not listed as dead. Barely stopping to eat, sleep or breathe, she sets off across the world to find them.

This book is not one for the faint-hearted. Rosney clearly attempts to bring to light the sheer cruelty that took place so many years ago, in the hope that we never forget what happened. She explores the deep rooted anti-Semitism that existed in Europe, many years prior to the Holocaust, reminding the reader that it was not only Germany that hated Jews. She perhaps questions why other countries, including ours, allowed this treatment to take place.

I studied European History at A level, therefore this topic is not new to me. But it was this novel that made me passionate about this theme. My favorite module of my third year degree is Representing Trauma, where we have been given direct access to Holocaust literature and study. I had the opportunity to meet Joanna Millan, a survivor of the Holocaust which further inspired me. This incredible woman agreed to let me interview her in order to help make my own writing more authentic.

My story is called Bonsoir, and still has a long way to go. However, here is the dedication section which I feel is relevant to this review:

I dedicate this novel to the voices who were never heard, the lives that were never lived and the hearts that never loved, in hope that one day, we can come to terms with the loss of the innocence suffered at the hands of our own kind. Sometimes, we cannot find the answers we are looking for, or obtain justice for those who deserve it, but what we can do, is the right thing. A wise man once stated:

“In each of us, two natures are at war – the good and the evil. All our lives the fight goes on between them, and one of them must conquer. But in our own hands lies the power to choose – what we want most to be, we are.” (Robert Louis Stevenson).

I hope this novel guides your choices to the right path. For life is nothing, but to be lived.

Naomi Daniel is an English and American literature student in her third year. She hopes to work in publishing, as well as become a children’s author. In her spare time she tutors English to primary school children and volunteers for the Make A Wish foundation.

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