Reading “Sarah’s Key” by Tatiana de Rosnay, I recognize some of the scenes from recent history. Not too long ago, Hurricane Katrina struck and victims who could not leave the city of New Orleans were evacuated to preapproved points such as the massive Superdome. While people hovered in the squalor of the arena without medication, bathroom facilities and water, Americans sat powerlessly watching the events unfold on TV.
In “Sarah’s Key,” a fictional Jewish family is led away from their home in Paris, France to the Vélodrome d’Hiver or Vel’ d’Hiv’ as it was known locally. It is July 16, 1942, and the Vel’ d’Hiv that once hosted concerts, boxing matches and six-day bicycle races now contains over 10,000 Jewish families of which there are 4,000 children.
Rosnay’s characters experience the same miserable heat that New Orleans inhabitants suffered. Unlike the Superdome, the Vel’ d’Hiv is open air and the sun beats down on them as they sit amongst filth and appalling smells because the French police, not the Nazis, are guarding the arena and not allowing inhabitants to leave.
Earlier that day, in the morning light, Ten-year-old Sarah is roused by policemen banging on her door. She runs to her mother’s room and finds her crying in the bed unable to move. The policemen are now yelling and her mother slowly rises and half drags herself towards the noise.
Once the door is open, the police rush in and demand that she pack clothes for a three day trip. They also demand to see her husband, but she tells them he left a week ago for the south of France. Really, he is hiding in the basement, believing they only wish to talk to the mother and children. He was told that the fathers are being deported.
While mother packs, Sarah asks her little brother to hide in the secret cupboard. It is a tiny place they take turns hiding in since the occupation. Within they keep a flashlight and water. Sarah believes once they leave her father will come up from the basement and let her brother out. So she locks him in and looks for a place to put the key for her father to see. A policeman spots Sarah’s hesitation and starts to herd her to the door.
Mother is distraught as they are led to the middle of the street. Her neighbor hollers from an upstairs window to leave them alone, they have done nothing wrong. Her mother collapses and yells three times her husbands’ name. He breaks from the apartment and joins the family on their way to the bus. Everything is alright now. Sarah can hand him the key.