Yellow star, burning bright…
“The girl was the first to hear the loud pounding on the door…. ‘Open up immediately. Police!’ ” The morning raid by the French police in Nazi-occupied Paris on July 16, 1942 is the wrenching event at the heart of the popular novel Sarah’s Key, by Tatiana de Rosnay (St. Martin’s Press, paperback, $13.95). On that fateful morning, French police began rounding up thousands of Jewish men, women, and children. They were taken to the Vel d’Hiv sports arena, given hardly any food or water for several days, then shipped to barracks outside the city. There, armed guards separated husbands and wives. The children were “bludgeoned, beaten,” and torn from their parents. This was a mere preamble to the gas chambers of Auschwitz where 73,000 Jews deported from France were murdered, among them 11,000 children.
Sixty years later, Julia Jarmond, an American journalist living in Paris, is assigned to cover the official commemoration. As she researches what happened to the victims, she comes to suspect that her French husband’s family somehow knew the frightened girl we meet in that first sentence.
At first, the book is spliced into chapters alternating between the wartime ordeal of the 10-year-old Sarah and Julia’s unrelenting quest to find out what happened. In the process, Julia’s life comes undone as she discovers that her Paris apartment was once occupied by Sarah and her family. As Julia discovers, Sarah managed to escape her torturers that summer of 1942 and return home, only to make a gruesome discovery.
Meanwhile, Julia’s emotional roller coaster goes into high gear as she bumps against a diffident husband and the stony silence of her in-laws. “The French were closed up like clams. Nothing must be shown. Nothing must be revealed. Everything was to remain unruffled, undisturbed. That’s how it was. How it had always been.”
It’s a sad comment that the majority of the population remained indifferent to the fate of the Jews in their midst. Nevertheless, individual French people risked their lives to rescue the hunted, especially children who, from age six on, had to wear the infamous yellow star. De Rosnay allows these selfless characters to shine. (This reviewer owes her life to the courage of one of them. After the Nazi occupation ended, my own parents and baby sister did not return from the death camps. I was hidden by a French family.)
Translated into 32 languages, Sarah’s Key has, not surprisingly, landed in Hollywood with Kirstin Scott-Thomas in the lead role. At times, the novel does read like a movie script, taking its heroine around Paris, then to Tuscany and New York, places where directors and cameras love to linger. Ironically, last September, invited to the U.S. to advise the filmmaker, de Rosnay was temporarily denied a passport. French officials insisted that she was not “totally French” and would have to submit documents proving she was. No pounding on doors, however. That belongs to the past, n’est-ce pas?
Claudia Carlin is a freelance feature reporter who divides her time between the U.S. and France.