I love hunting through the bargain books section at McNally Robinson, and I’m not ashamed to admit it.
Part of me is always in search of unique presents for family and friends, but a larger part of me is looking for myself. Regular-priced novels are something that I usually don’t purchase, due to the fact that I’m a RIDICULOUSLY FAST READER. I’ll spend $35 on a hardcover, and I’m finished in an afternoon. For some people, spending the money is worth it. For me, it isn’t.
My McNally book hunts have taken me in a lot of different directions. About a month ago, I purchased Gonzo, a biography about Hunter S. Thompson. Then, I went on a Philippa Gregory splurge, and purchased four titles by the historical fiction author.
Most recently, I came across the novel Sarah’s Key by French author Tatiana de Rosnay, and it was fantastic.
The novel cycles back and forth between two different stories. The first is about a 10-year-old girl named Sarah. She’s a French-born Jewish girl living in Paris during the Second World War.
One night, the French police bang on her door and demand her family leaves at once. Convinced she’d only be gone for a short period of time, Sarah locks her four-year-old brother Michael in a hidden cupboard. Pocketing the key, she promises she will return soon to set him free.
The second story is about Julia, an American-born journalist living in Paris. Set in modern-day Europe, Julia prepares to move into a newly renovated apartment with her French husband and teenage daughter. Then, a story Julia has been chosen to write for a local newspaper unknowingly connects her new apartment with Sarah’s past 60 years prior.
The central event that both stories revolve around is the Vel’ d’Hiv Roundup. It was a Nazi decreed raid and mass arrest in Paris by the French police on July 16 and 17, 1942. The aim of the roundup was to decrease the Jewish population in occupied France. Over 13,000 people – mostly women and children – were rounded up and given little time to collect personal belongings before being whisked away into the night.
Most of the arrested people were taken to the Vélodrome d’hiver. It was a large recreational facility primarily used for biking located near the Eiffel Tower. The arrested Jews were held prisoner in the stifling-hot facility. They had no lavatories – of the 10 available, five were sealed because their windows offered a way out. There was only one water tap, and food was infrequently available. Those who tried to escape were shot on the spot. A number of people took their own lives in desperation.
After five days, the prisoners were hustled into city buses and transported out of Paris. They were first taken to internment camps on the outskirts of the city, and were later distributed to extermination camps. The majority ended up at Auschwitz.
The Vel’ d’Hiv Roundup is an event that most people know little about. When I visited Paris in 2009, my hotel was located blocks from where the biking facility once stood. I had no idea such a tragedy occurred, and if I did, I would have taken a moment to walk by the site where so many people suffered.
Sarah’s Key is a tribute to the families who were taken from their homes in July 1942, never to return. It’s a somber, graphic and heart-wrenching story, and I guarantee you will feel haunted after reading it. With that being said, I believe it’s a magnificent and important novel that sheds light on a less-known yet equally tragic event that took place during the Second World War.