Sarah’s Key Summary
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Divided into two separate plotlines that come together in the end, Sarah’s Key by Tatiana De Rosnay is a very heartbreaking account of the life of Sarah Starzynski, a Jewish child in France during the second World War. The first plotline follows Sarah herself, and her journey from the young scared little girl she is, to her capture, her misery, and her life after the war. The second plotline continues Sarah’s life, until her death, but through the eyes of an American reporter, Julia, living in Paris in 2002, who was told to dig into a story about an internment camp at the height of World War II.
Sarah’s Key alludes to the actual closet key that this ten-year-old girl carries around in her pocket throughout her entire harrowing journey. She keeps it close because when French Police raided her home, to send her family, along with thousands of other Jewish families to be held in the Velodrome d’Hiver, a vacant stadium, she hid and locked her little brother Michael in the closet, telling him to hide there until they returned, thinking she wouldn’t be gone for long.
Set in the middle of the second World War, in 1942, Sarah’s story is a devastating one, starting out with her being separated from her parents, sent to Drancy, a refugee camp, and then doing all she can to avoid being sent to Auschwitz, where most Jewish families, including her own, were sent and executed.
While held in Drancy, she was plagued by thoughts of her brother, trapped in the closet alone, and her only concern was returning home to Paris and letting him out, telling him that she was safe, but after they captured her, stripped her family away and shaved her head, she couldn’t take anymore, and escaped with another young refugee girl, Rachel. Almost immediately they are caught, but as luck would have it, the officer that caught them knew Sarah from her pre-refugee life, gave her money and let them go, soon after which they found Jules and Genevieve Dufaure, an elderly couple who took them in, gave them shelter and a place to hide. Unfortunately, Rachel grew deathly ill, and they called in a Nazi doctor to examine her, but instead, he contacted the Nazi officials to come and capture Rachel and Sarah, but are only able to get Rachel, who presumably dies, however, Jules and Genevieve dress Sarah up in boy’s clothes, and with her short hair, she fools Nazi officials as all three head back to Sarah’s old home in Paris. She bursts into her home, unlocks the closet, but is way too late – Michael had died.
Sixty years later, in the second plot of the novel, Julia Jaramond begins her story in 2002, when she is told by her boss to write an article about the Velodrome d’Hiver, and its use in World War II as a primary holding area for Jews who were to be taken to Auschwitz to be killed. The residents of Paris are uneasy about this, since the Velodrome was shut down and destroyed in 1959, and it had always been a sore subject for the French, so Julia is forced to delve deeper into the story, leading her to Sarah Starzynski and her family.
Julia’s research becomes an obsession, as she lets it take her over, especially since she is dealing with her own problems, with her very rebellious daughter Zoe, who is approaching the terrible teens, and with her unfaithful and callous husband Bertrand Tezac, who is described as totally rude, and who had cheated on Julia before with a young woman named Amelie.
Throughout her research, she grows very attached to Sarah’s life story, and vows to uncover what had happened to the young girl, wondering if she had stayed alive after she found what remained of her brother. She discovers that Sarah was never recorded to have been to the gas chamber despite having been held at the Beaune-la-Rolande internment camp, which gives Julia hope, that there is a chance that she may be alive. Julia tracks down Jules and Genevieve’s close living kin and questions them, and they reveal that Sarah had lived with the Dufaures for years after. She also finds out that Sarah had married a man named Richard Rainsferd and had a son – Julia sets off to find William, Sarah’s son, now a grown man, and she succeeds, and begins to tell him about his mother, but William does not want to know.
All the while, Julia becomes pregnant, and her husband Bertrand is fed up with her, and finally uses her pregnancy as an excuse – he asks her to have the abortion, or he will divorce her, to which Julia gives him the divorce, allowing him to go back to his mistress Amelie, which is what he wanted in the first place.
After Julia has her second child, William visits her, his resolve weakened, and wanting to learn more about his mother. He also reveals to Julia letters that Sarah had written, and that he had found in his father’s belongings. The letters disclose that Sarah had killed herself in a car crash, not being able to handle the guilt after so many years. William and Julia share what they know about this woman’s life, and in the name of memory, Julia names her newborn: Sarah.
Tatiana De Rosnay has received critical acclaim for Sarah’s Key, and has won multiple awards for the novel, including the Reader’s Choice and the Chronos Prize for Literature, and many French accolades as well. The narrative is brilliantly written in a unique format, where both plots are alternated throughout the story, so that they parallel one another, and the end of Sarah’s misery as a child mirrors her future as being given a namesake and living on as a memory, and being loved even years after her death.
1. What did you know about France’s role in World War II --- and the Vél d’Hiv round-up in particular --- before reading Sarah’s Key? How did this book teach you about, or change your impression of, this important chapter in French history?
2.Sarah’s Key is composed of two interweaving story lines: Sarah’s, in the past, and Julia’s quest in the present day. Discuss the structure and prose-style of each narrative. Did you enjoy the alternating stories and time-frames? What are the strengths or drawbacks of this format?
3. Per above: Which “voice” did you prefer: Sarah’s or Julia’s? Why? Is one more or less authentic than the other? If you could meet either of the two characters, which one would you choose?
4. How does the apartment on la rue de Saintonge unite the past and present action --- and all the characters --- in Sarah’s Key? In what ways is the apartment a character all its own in?
5. What are the major themes of Sarah’s Key?
6. de Rosnay’s novel is built around several “key” secrets which Julia will unearth. Discuss the element of mystery in these pages. What types of narrative devices did the author use to keep the keep the reader guessing?
7. Were you surprised by what you learned about Sarah’s history? Take a moment to discuss your individual expectations in reading Sarah’s Key. You may wish to ask the group for a show of hands. Who was satisfied by the end of the book? Who still wants to know --- or read --- more?
8. How do you imagine what happens after the end of the novel? What do you think Julia’s life will be like now that she knows the truth about Sarah? What truths do you think she’ll learn about her self?
9. Among modern Jews, there is a familiar mantra about the Holocaust; they are taught, from a very young age, that they must “remember and never forget” (as the inscription on the Rafle du Vél d’Hiv) Discuss the events of Sarah’s Key in this context. Who are the characters doing the remembering? Who are the ones who choose to forget?
10. What does it take for a novelist to bring a “real” historical event to life? To what extent do you think de Rosnay took artistic liberties with this work?
11. Why do modern readers enjoy novels about the past? How and when can a powerful piece of fiction be a history lesson in itself ?
12. We are taught, as young readers, that every story has a “moral”. Is there a moral to Sarah’s Key? What can we learn about our world --- and our selves --- from Sarah’s story?