Summary: 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. (via Amazon)
My Thoughts: In some ways, this books has left me speechless. Painfully, heartbreakingly speechless.
Essentially, it told two separate but related stories: one of a ten year old girl in Paris in 1942, and one of a middle-aged journalist, also in Paris, 60 years later. One slowly discovers the history of the other, while learning much about herself in the process.
Sarah Starzynksi a little Jewish girl born and raised in France, along with her little brother. The Vel d’Hiv roundup was an actual event that occurred during the German occupation of France, where French police rounded up thousands of Jewish men, women, and children under inhuman circumstances. The vast majority would be killed at Auschwitz; very few survived. The story graphically describes the conditions that the Jews were left in, the cruel acts they were subjected to, and the overall tragedy of the event. When the police arrive at Sarah’s door on that infamous night, she locks her little brother in a cupboard, and promises him that she will return to get him out. The fact that we do not know his fate haunts most of the story, and he will haunt Sarah for the rest of her life.
The story alternates between Sarah’s experience and that of Julie Jarmond, a journalist who is assigned to cover the event on its sixty year anniversary. The further she investigates the Vel d’Hiv, the more she learns about her family’s own past and tragic connection with Starzynksi family. The book also dealt with a lot of Julie’s marital and family issues, thought to be honest I found this part rather tedious and unnecessary.
The writing itself was stunning. It didn’t shrink from portraying in brutal detail the savage acts and inhuman events that occurred. It was very real — it made me feel like I was seeing, smelling, hearing and tasting every thing going on. But it was also beautifully sensitive to Julia’s Jarmonds thoughts and motivations. The descriptions were really what blew me away. Without being soppy or overdone, using only a few choice similes or one short sentence, Tatiana de Rosnay was able to draw me deeply into the story she told.
Be warned: it was a somewhat gruesome read. As I said before, she didn’t hesitate to describe the events as they happened, in a very powerful and vivd way. And the ending, while not exactly hopeless, isn’t hopeful either. The whole story was incredibly sad, and the ending left me feeling rather bleak. There were so many things that I wanted so badly to happen, that I wanted to turn up all right and didn’t. But at the same time, it had to be that way. It couldn’t have ended differently. It couldn’t leave you feeling good about it. Because that’s not how life is, and the book had to remain true to that.
In summary: it was horrible, tragic, heartbreaking, and yet compelling at the same time. I would recommend that you read it, because it is something that needs to be known. It ought not be kept a secret, because any day, the same thing could happen all ever again. History always repeats itself. But I warn you: you will not be the same. At least in my opinion, it will haunt you just a little bit for the rest of your days.