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By the Chapter, Day 3 | Sarah’s Key by Tatiana de Rosnay

February 11, 2009

Welcome to By the Chapter. The featured book is Sarah’s Key by Tatiana de Rosnay. Sharing hosting duties with me this week is Dar from Peeking Between the Pages.
sarahskeyIf you’re not familiar with Sarah’s Key here’s a little background on the book from St. Martin’s Press:
Paris, July 1942: Sarah, a ten year-old girl, is brutally arrested with her family by the French police in the Vel’ d’Hiv’ roundup (I included this Wikipedia link), but not before she locks her younger brother in a cupboard in the family’s apartment, thinking that she will be back within a few hours.

Paris, May 2002: On Vel’ d’Hiv’s 60th anniversary, journalist Julia Jarmond is asked to write an article about this black day in France’s past. Through her contemporary investigation, she stumbles onto a trail of long-hidden family secrets that connect her to Sarah. Julia finds herself compelled to retrace the girl’s ordeal, from that terrible term in the Vel d’Hiv’, to the camps, and beyond. As she probes into Sarah’s past, she begins to question her own place in France, and to reevaluate her marriage and her life.
This book is a work of fiction based on true events. This story is told from two viewpoints – Sarah’s and Julia’s. Chapters are very short and alternate between 1942 and 2002 for the first two-thirds of the book. Once most of Sarah’s story is complete the book then moves to 2002 and later to 2005. Initially I was attempting to pace my reading so as to not finish before Friday. Best laid plans went astray and I finished the book today. I’ll save my thoughts about this book for Friday and today I’ll cover more of this emotionally heartbreaking story. If there are spoilers they are minor as I know many of you have not yet had the opportunity to read this book and it is sitting TBR piles.

Sarah: When I started this book Sunday night Sarah’s incredibly wrenching story started chipping away at my heart from the very first page. Sarah locks her little brother in their secret hiding place so that he’ll be protected from the roundup of Jews in her city. She’s taken, along with her parents and others Jews, many of them children, as part of Operation Spring Breeze. 10-year old Sarah believes she’ll be back home within hours to release her little brother. Time passes agonizingly from hours to days, days to weeks. She is witness to and an unwilling participant in the most horrific of situations. Denied basic human rights and living conditions families are devastated and ripped apart. Many succumb before leaving Paris. As I turned pages reading Sarah’s story I felt my heart crumbling bit by bit. I was grieving for these people. Alternately sadness and rage played havoc with my emotions. At page 160 my heart shattered into tiny pieces.

Julia: Julia is a journalist writing for a weekly American magazine covering cultural happenings. On the eve of the 60th anniversary of the roundup Julia has been assigned to cover this event. From all appearances this event in history hasn’t been widely publicized and many people either aren’t aware of it’s ever having happened or would rather forget this ugly time in history. (Quite honestly until reading this book I wasn’t aware of it. It wasn’t covered in my school history classes.) Through the course of her investigation she learns that her husband’s grandmother’s apartment, which they are renovating, plays a significant role in this story. His family moved into this particular apartment in late July of 1942.

It turns out that Julia’s husband’s family played a role in Sarah’s life that I never anticipated. I won’t give away the story but the lives of Sarah and this family become intertwined in a decades long, uplifting, life affirming connection. After all the truly unspeakable horror suffered by this child there were people who cared and cared deeply about her well being.


The path of Julie’s investigation into Sarah’s life is what most captured my attention in the last two-thirds of this book. Ms. de Rosnay skillfully weaves fact into fiction and the shear ignorance of people is mind boggling. Some of the ‘facts’ will leave you stunned. Once again I found myself sticky posting paragraph after paragraph. Snippets of writing that would generate hours of conversation. Just a bit of what captured me:

11,000 children were deported from France

French Jews were sent first to interment camps, then to Auschwitz and straight into the gas chambers. By the French government, on French buses, on French trains. [Sarah’s Key, page 116 – uncorrected proof]

A commune and housing development are currently located at Drancy which was once the site of Drancy Deportation Camp. If you’d like to read more about Drancy here’s a link to a case study written by Michel Laffitte, Professor of History.

Residents of Beaune-la-Rolande watched deported Jews exit the trains and walk through the middle of town to the internment camp. A small sign is all that remains to remind people of these events: In memory of the thousands of Jewish children, women, and men, who between May 1941 and August 1943 passed through this station and the internment camp at Beaune-la-Rolande, before being deported to Auschwitz, the extermination camp, where they were assassinated. Never forget. [Sarah’s Key, page 138 – uncorrected proof]


Most surprising to me is how large a role the French government had in these events. When I think of WWII I think of Germany and Hitler. When I think of France I remember it was an occupied country but little did I know about what really went on. Admittedly I’m very affected, and certainly shocked, by the history I’ve come across.

I could go on but really you need to read this book to truly understand the story Ms. de Rosany paints. On Friday not only will be I posting my final thoughts about Sarah’s Key but Ms. de Rosnay has written a guest post to be included on the final day of this week’s By the Chapter. Personally I haven’t read the guest post, in case it contained potential spoilers but I’m expecting it will be something wonderful.

 I’d like to thank Dawn at She Is Too Fond Of Books for sending me her copy of this wonderful book.
If you’ve read, or are currently reading, Sarah’s Key please share your thoughts with us.
This week’s reading schedule:
Monday: The Printed Page
Tuesday: Peeking Between the Pages
Wednesday: The Printed Page
Thursday: Peeking Between the Pages
Friday: Peeking Between the Pages and The Printed Page


  1. February 11, 2009 8:04 am

    We lived in France for two years, so I know some of the background – I need to make the time to read this book.
    You do!

  2. February 11, 2009 9:17 am

    Great post today Marcia. My heart broke along with yours on pg 160. This book will stay with me forever.

    When it came to the war I always just thought Hitler and Auschwitz. I too knew that France was occupied but had no idea that this was going on there. I had no idea that Jewish people were turned away from Britain, US and Canada. My heart breaks at that. Why-like Sarah I don’t understand how anyone can hate so much.

    The Drancy camp is something I will mention tomorrow in my post. More than that too is the fact that people live in these places where camps were. Granted maybe some don’t know what had happened there all those years ago but if I did I wouldn’t live there. Like the young lady in the daycare who didn’t even take the time to read the sign above the door-very sad.

    My heart is helped along by those who did try to help. I couldn’t have stood by and watched those suffer-especially children-if there was any way I could do something. I’m thankful that there were some special people who risked their lives to offer help.

    You know I could go on. Like you, I say that one really has to read this novel to get it’s full impact. You could write about it for days I think and still never really cover the feeling you get from actually reading it. I’ll finish it up today, it’s certainly a page-turner.
    Thank you Dar.

    The camps – both internment and concentration. I shudder to think of living in these places. Knowing that people were murdered, for that’s what it was, in the very place I’d choose to call home turns my stomach. To me these places are cemeteries and should be respected as such. And the refusing to acknowledge or, worse yet, being oblivious to the events is beyond comprehension. I fail to understand how one cannot know of these horrors. 60 years is a pittance of time in history. It’s not like these events happened hundreds of years ago and have faded from memory.

    Through the years we’ve heard about and read stories of people who reached out to help those who were being persecuted. Once again Schindler’s List and The Diary of Anne Frank come to mind. Neighbors and strangers reaching out to those in times of distress. Hiding families even if it meant putting their own lives at risk. Among the barbaric were the angels who could see right through the wrong.

    The farther I read in the book the bigger the impact became. It haunts Sarah throughout her life. Even though she runs she can’t escape these horrors. One stone thrown into the pond of Sarah’s life causes ripples that affect everything she believes in, colors her world and directs her actions.

  3. February 11, 2009 9:21 am

    Without looking at the book, I knew exactly what you were referring to on page 160. I cried when I read that – really ugly cried. I cannot even faintly imagine the pain that Sarah was feeling.

    I’m looking forward to reading the author’s post on Friday.
    Sarah’s story is so emotionally moving start to finish. I, too, can’t even imagine the pain, and the guilt, that Sarah must have carried throughout her life.

  4. February 11, 2009 10:57 am

    I found parts of this book to be utterly heartbreaking, to think that all of this was true, and that most people had never heard of it is mind blowing. I too found the section on page 160 to be something that was both haunting and agonizing. This book continues to stay with me, though I finished it months ago.
    For me page 160 is the defining moment of this book. It says so much about Sarah’s world at that point in time. I believe that single discovery is where her life turns.

  5. February 11, 2009 7:22 pm

    I’m really enjoying By The Chapter and I had absolutely no idea how involved France was in the genocide of Jewish people!! I have this book on my must read this year list because I want to explore some of the facts that you’ve listed here and have this story as my backdrop while I’m doing that.
    Thank you for stopping by this week. It is a special book.

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