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Sarah's Key




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About The Author

Tatiana de RosnayTatiana de Rosnay

TATIANA DE ROSNAY was born in the suburbs of Paris and is of English, French and Russian descent.  She is the author of nine French novels.  She also writes for French ELLE, and is a literary critic for Psychologies magazine. Tatiana de Rosnay is married and has two... More

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Reading Group Gold

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, 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.
 
Tatiana de Rosnay offers us a brilliantly subtle, compelling portrait of France under occupation and reveals the taboos and silence that surround this painful episode.


HISTORICAL PERSPECTIVE
 
Place des Martyrs Juifs du Vélodrome d’Hiver
 
In this upper-middle-class neighborhood of high-rise apartment buildings and plenty of parks, you won’t find anything of Jewish historical interest—except for one monument near the Bir-Hakeim bridge, between the quai de Grenelle and the quai Branly. It was nearby, on the rue Nélaton, that the huge Vélodrome d’Hiver (known then and now as the Vél d’Hiv) was located. An indoor stadium used for six-day bicycle races, concerts, boxing matches, and other events, it was, from 1942 until its demolition in 1958, one of the most infamous places in all Paris.
La Grande Rafle was the name given to the main roundup of all the Jews in Paris. Early on the morning of July 16, 1942, the French police, acting under orders from the German Gestapo, wrenched over thirteen thousand Jewish men, women, and children from their beds. Most of the adults were sent directly to the camp at Drancy, while parents with children went to the Vél d’Hiv. And it didn’t stop then. For the next two days the French police canvassed the city with buses, picking up Jews and taking them to the stadium.
Conditions inside the Vél d’Hiv were horrendous: it was hot, there were no toilet facilities, and there was little food and no place to sleep. For six days amidst mounting panic, the horrified prisoners endured physical indignity while the French police stood by.
The place des Martyrs Juifs du Vélodrome d’Hiver was dedicated on July 17, 1994. Each year now a ceremony commemorates the shameful incident. It was here, in 1995, that President Jacques Chirac, who had just been elected to office, officially acknowledging* France’s complicity in the murder and deportation of the Jews of Europe.  
© 2001 Kamins, Toni L. The Complete Jewish Guide to France. New York : St. Martin’s Press.

* From President Jacques Chirac’s address (1995)
“These black hours will stain our history for ever and are an injury to our past and our traditions. Yes, the criminal madness of the occupant was supported ('secondée') by the French, by the French state. Fifty-three years ago, on 16 July 1942, 450 policemen and gendarmes, French, under the authority of their leaders, obeyed the demands of the Nazis. That day, in the capital and the Paris region, nearly 10,000 Jewish men, women and children were arrested at home, in the early hours of the morning, and assembled at police stations... France, home of the Enlightenment and the Rights of Man, land of welcome and asylum, France committed that day the irreparable. Breaking its word, it delivered those it protected to their executioners.” 
Text courtesy of Présidence de la République  (http://www.elysee.fr)
Inscription
The French Republic
in homage to the victims of racist and anti-Semitic persecution
and of crimes against humanity
committed under the de facto authority of the so-called
“government of the French state” 1940-1944
never forget


What was the inspiration for Sarah’s Key?
I have always been interested in places and houses. And how places and houses keep memories, how walls can talk. I was browsing on the Internet about places in Paris where dark deeds had happened, and fell upon a website describing the rue Nélaton, in the 15th arrondissement, not far from where I live. That was where the great Vél d’Hiv roundup took place on July 16th 1942.
 
How much did you know about what happened before you started writing?
I realized I didn’t know much about what exactly happened that day. I was not taught about this event at school, during the 70’s. And it still seemed to be shrouded by some kind of taboo. So I started reading and researching.
 
And what did you learn? How did it make you feel?
As I progressed through my research, I was moved, appalled by what I discovered concerning the Vél d’Hiv roundup, especially about what happened to those 4000 Jewish children, and I knew I had to write about it. I needed to write about it. But I also knew it could not be a historical novel, it had to have a more contemporary feel to it. And that’s how I imagined Julia’s story taking place today, linked to Sarah’s, back in the 40’s.
 
Please share a few words about the writing process.
Writing Sarah’s Key has been a powerful experience. First of all, reverting to my mother tongue after years of writing novels in French felt exhilarating. Like coming home after a long trip. Secondly, researching those dark times of France’s past, the Occupation, the Vichy years, was tremendously enriching. But sobering, too.
 
Writing Sarah’s Key took me to Drancy and Beaune La Rolande, places around Paris which have a dreaded past that cannot be forgotten despite time going by. My visits there were poignant and memorable. And it was also through this book that I met Heloïse d’Ormesson and Gilles Cohen-Solal, my French publishers, who hold world rights to the novel, and whose enthusiasm concerning Sarah’s Key—and me—have added a whole lot of excitement to my career as a writer.
Speaking of your writing career, who are some of your favorite authors?
I admire Daphne du Maurier, Virginia Woolf, Henry James, Irène Nemirovsky, Emile Zola, Guy de Maupassant, Oscar Wilde, Charles Baudelaire, Edgar Allen Poe. And Paul Auster, Joanna Trollope, Anita Shreeve, Penelope Lively, A.S Byatt, JM Coetzee, Maggie O’Farrell, Tracy Chevalier, Joyce Carol Oates, and Sarah Waters.


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?

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