The central event of Sarah’s Key is the Vel’ d’Hiv’ roundup, which was a mass arrest of Parisian Jews conducted by the French police on July 16, 1942. The interwoven plots of the novel track the lives of Sarah Starzynski, a ten-tear-old arrested with her parents in that roundup, and Julia Jarmond, an American expat working as a journalist in Paris in 2002. Although many of the characters in the novel struggle with confronting the horrors of the past, de Rosnay shows the vital importance of remembering both private and public histories. While painful, remembering the past can ultimately allow for healing and establish a sense of meaning that comes from a deepened connection to the collective human experience.
When Julia is assigned to write an article on the Vel’ d’Hiv’ roundup for an American magazine, she finds herself having to directly confront the reluctance of French society to acknowledge France’s role in the Holocaust. As Julia discovers, the first time the French government openly acknowledged France’s role in the murder of its Jewish citizens was in 1995. This reluctance to come to terms with the past seems to pervade French society; Julia’s French husband, Bertrand, insists that no one will read an article on the Vel’ d’Hiv’ because “nobody cares anymore” and “nobody remembers. Write about something else,” he says. Julia struggles to find not only books about the Vel’ d’Hiv’ roundup, but also people who are willing to be interviewed about the subject.
Yet de Rosnay argues that, regardless of people’s willingness to remember it, history makes itself present in physical spaces. Julia finds that she can’t imagine living in the apartment once occupied by the Starzynskis, where Michel Starzynski, Sarah’s younger brother, died in a cupboard after Sarah hid him there on the night of the mass arrest. While other characters are not so sensitive to the past as Julia, de Rosnay shows that past traumas are nevertheless embedded in physical spaces. This can be seen when Julia and a colleague visit Drancy. Once the site of an internment camp from which Jews were deported to the gas chambers at Auschwitz, Drancy now houses four hundred families in cheap apartments. Julia is struck by the new name of the apartment building: Cité de la Muette, City of the Mute. She interprets the name as a symbol of French people’s unwillingness to deal with their national past. She experiences this same frustration at Beaune-la-Rolande, the site of the camp where Sarah was held prisoner, and where a children’s daycare now stands.
Julia remains determined in her goal of uncovering the history of the Starzynskis and their connection to her in-laws, the Tézacs. She eventually succeeds in forcing the Tézac family to wrestle with their family’s past, and she also shares what she has learned with Sarah Starzynski’s son, William Rainsferd. But these acknowledgments of history come at a cost. While ultimately cathartic, Julia’s revelations strain her relationship with her husband’s family, and William also has a negative reaction to learning about his mother’s life as a Holocaust survivor, abruptly cutting off communication with Julia for months and ordering her not to contact him. William’s reaction reflects the advice of Julia’s older sister, Charla, who responds to Julia’s passionate declaration, “I want to make sure [William] knows nobody has forgotten what happened,” with the statement, “Maybe he doesn’t want to be reminded.”
Remembrance is thus a fraught act. De Rosnay is clear that history persists in physical spaces, and that ignoring history does a disservice to not only past generations, but also to the current one. After all, Julia ends up leading a much richer life as a result of learning Sarah Starzynski’s story. She leaves her toxic marriage, remains strong in her decision not to terminate her pregnancy, and possibly, the novel suggests, finds love with William Rainsferd. But her work and personal life are affected by the demanding task of remembrance, which becomes an obsession for Julia. The novel argues, then, that blind devotion to uncovering and remembering the past can be just as emotionally damaging as denying the past. The various characters struggle, in Sarah’s Key, to find balance: to be courageous enough to acknowledge past horrors, but not to allow these horrors to swallow one’s life in the present moment. None of the characters, even Julia, gets this balance quite right, but de Rosnay shows that striving for this balance is more worthwhile than ignoring historical traumas altogether.
Remembrance and History ThemeTracker
Remembrance and History Quotes in Sarah’s Key
“I know they are holding something back. I want to know what it is.”
“Be careful, Julia,” he repeated. He smiled, but his eyes remained serious. “You’re playing with Pandora’s box. Sometimes, it’s better not to open it. Sometimes, it’s better not to know.”
As I stood there, oblivious to the traffic, I felt I could almost see Sarah coming down the rue de Saintonge on that hot July morning, with her mother, and her father, and the policemen. Yes, I could see it all, I could see them being pushed into the garage, right here, where I now stood. I could see the sweet heart-shaped face, the incomprehension, the fear. The straight hair caught back in a bow, the slanted turquoise eyes. Sarah Starzynski. Was she still alive? She would be seventy today, I thought. No, she couldn’t be alive. She had disappeared off the face of the earth, with the rest of the Vel’ d’Hiv’ children. She had never come back from Auschwitz. She was a handful of dust.
We wandered around the small, plain room, gazing at photographs, articles, maps. There were some yellow stars, placed behind a glass panel. It was the first time I saw a real one. I felt impressed and sickened.
There were several names and dates on the side of the tombstone. I leaned forward for a closer look. Children. Barely two or three years old. Children who had died at the camp, in July and August 1942. Vel’ d’Hiv’ children.
I had always been acutely aware that everything I had read about the roundup was true. And yet, on that hot spring day, as I stood looking at the grave, it hit me. The whole reality of it hit me.
And I knew that I would no longer rest, no longer be at peace, until I found out precisely what had become of Sarah Starzynski.
Number 26 appeared in front of them. Nothing had changed in the street, she noticed. It was still the same calm, narrow road she had always known. How was it possible that entire lives could change, could be destroyed, and that streets and buildings remained the same, she wondered.
I thought of Sarah Starzynski, who had been Zoë’s age when horror came into her life.
I closed my eyes. But I could still see the moment when the policemen tore the children from the mothers at Beaune-la-Rolande. I could not get the image out of my mind.
I held Zoë close, so close she gasped.
I sat on the narrow bed and took the Sarah file out of my bag. Sarah was the only person I could bear thinking about right now. Finding her felt like a sacred mission, felt like the only possible way to keep my head up, to dispel the sadness in which my life had become immersed.
As the prime minister went on, my eyes moved over the crowd. Was there anyone here who knew and remembered Sarah Starzynski? Was she here herself? Right now, at this very moment? Was she here with a husband, a child, a grandchild? Behind me, in front of me? I carefully picked out women in their seventies, scanning wrinkled, solemn faces for the slanted green eyes. But I did not feel comfortable ogling these grieving strangers. I lowered my gaze.
After my conversation with my sister, I lay on the sofa for a long time, my hand folded over my stomach like a protective shield. Little by little, I felt vitality pumping back into me.
As ever, I thought of Sarah Starzynski, and of what I now knew. I had not needed to tape Gaspard Dufaure. Nor jot anything down. It was all written inside me.
Was it to do with Sarah, with the rue de Saintonge? Or was it just a belated coming-of-age? I could not tell. I only knew that I felt as if I had emerged from a long-lasting, mellow, protective fog. Now my senses were sharpened, keen. There was no fog. There was nothing mellow. There were only facts. Finding this man. Telling him his mother had never been forgotten by the Tézacs, by the Dufaures.
I cannot bear the weight of my past.
Yet I cannot throw away the key to your cupboard.
It is the only concrete thing that links me to you, apart from your grave.
Somehow he was no stranger to me, and more bizarre still, I felt even less a stranger to him. What had brought us together? My quest, my thirst for truth, my compassion for his mother? He knew nothing of me, knew nothing of my failing marriage, my near miscarriage in Lucca, my job, my life. What did I know of him, of his wife, his children, his career? His present was a mystery. But his past, his mother’s past, had been etched out to me like fiery torches along a dark path. And I longed to show this man that I cared, that what happened to his mother had altered my life.