Tales from a nomadic bibliophile (part 2) – Reading Sarah’s Key in Paris

So, it’s been a little while since Part 1 of this ‘meant to be series’, but here I am, a few months older and with a few more titles checked off my ‘impossible to complete within this lifetime’ list of books. With most of my reading over the past 8 months done while travelling, many of those books will definitely be resurfacing in posts to come. However, I had one book specifically in mind when starting this series. This book also happened to be the one that lured me into this gaggle of wine, cheese, and book lovers (the Unputdownable Book Club) in the first place! Meeting up with Mary Anne Carter in Nice, France a couple of summers ago, she lent me her copy of the book after I’d obviously forgotten the book I’d been reading on an airplane.

Image Based on historical fact, Sarah’s Key (Tatiana de Rosay) is set in Paris, France and tells of the horrifying and not well-known events of the Vel’ d’Hiv Roundup in July 1942. Told both from the experience of a ten year old girl named Sarah Starzinski, who locked her younger brother in a cupboard before being taken away with her parents, and sixty years later through Julia Jarmond, an American journalist living in Paris and covering the anniversary, my attention was captured right from the beginning. For myself, and from what I can remember of my very first book club meeting, most of the other girls, the premise and first half of this book is fascinating. The story of Sarah, her parents, and over 13,000 other Jews living in Paris being rounded up and held at the Vélodrome d’Hiver under disgusting conditions, before being sent to an internment camp and eventually, Auschwitz, was both wrenching and captivating. The parallel story of Julia’s interest in the Vel’ d’Hiv Roundup and France’s unwillingness to acknowledge it was at first a great vehicle to tell Sarah’s story. In my opinion, it should have been kept that way. Instead, I found myself slightly bored and irritated with her life and marital problems, reading quickly through them to return to Sarah’s heart-breaking attempt to get back to her younger brother.

Despite what my review might be of this book on Goodreads, due to its emphasis on the uninteresting and poorly developed modern story (among other things), I cannot help but take into account where I was and what I was experiencing while reading this book.

Seemingly contrary to the some of the Westernized cliches of Paris lovers I still embody (cheese enthusiast, hopeless romantic, female), I remember having pretty low expectations for La Ville-Lumière/La Ville de L’amour. I knew it was a city I wanted to see (if mainly to check off the list of big, touristy cities), but for some reason, I knew that it certainly wasn’t going to be a city that I was going to fall in love with.

I fell in love.


You’re tall.

Unabashedly in love.

And I have to admit, some of the credit for this new intimate relationship I formed has to be given to spending an hour each night before bed with Sarah’s Key. At times, I felt as though I was seeing Paris both through Julia’s research and obsession with finding Sarah’s history in modern day Paris, but also as though I was there in 1942.

Living in a country physically untouched by WWII is incredibly fortunate, however, it makes seeing buildings and areas that were affected, especially for the first time, that much more powerful. While walking around, I couldn’t help but find myself not only noticing street names and places from the book, but actually going out of my way to search for them. I don’t know if this was at all the author’s intention when using so many exact descriptions of Paris, but it really had a deeper affect on me than simply setting the scenes of the stories. Often when we think back to events such as WWII and the Holocaust, we feel detatched from them, as though it was not happening to real, normal human beings like ourselves. And although those years cannot ever be described as ‘normal’, I think it is important to be reminded that all over the world, as well as within Europe, people were going to work, being tourists in new cities, and living their lives while these events were taking place.

I had a friend recently describe to me his experience going to visit Auschwitz concentration camp in Poland on what happened to be a beautiful, sunny day. We talked about how you forget, what now seems meteorologically obvious, that between the years of 1939 and 1945, there were sunny days. Contrary to the dark and cloudy vision we usually attribute to that time and the atrocities that went with it, even on a bright summer morning, life and death for these people went on as ‘usual’.  Walking down the same street described in the book really takes you to that place seventy years ago when average people, attempting to go about their daily lives as we are now, were witnesses to what was happening around them.


It was not until July 16, 1995 that the French government, in a speech given by Jacques Chirac, formally acknowledged and apologized for the role the state had played in the persecution of Jewish citizens.
© Jacques Langevin/Sygma/Corbis

One major, and very important theme of the book is not necessarily the value of remembering, but more so the consequences failing to do so. Although written about a very prominent time in human history, this book addresses events which are not widely known about, even repressed, within the city in which they took place. Although for all of us the Holocaust is something completely incomprehensible, it is often argued that acknowledging and remembering it is the most important thing we can do to prevent it from ever happening again.

Despite not loving the book as a piece of literature in and of itself, I will never forget the almost haunting experience of exploring the cobble-stoned streets of Paris, with the story of Sarah and others like her walking around with me.


About Alyssa Fowler

Alyssa is an avid foodie and party-animal with a severe case of wanderlust. Just recently completing her degree in Human Rights & Political Science focused in International Relations, she is now trying to decide where she wants to go and what she wants to be when she grows up (which is beginning to look like it may have to be picked out of a hat). The decision of January 2013 was to move to Vancouver, B.C., to do her Hatha Yoga Teacher Training and live with one of her oldest friends. Although an obvious prerequisite for "Unputdownable" membership, Alyssa loves to read and is thrilled to finally be able to set down some of the text books and start knocking off some of the titles on her 'impossible to finish' reading list. Although that list includes titles from almost every genre available, she generally prefers historical fictions or biographies (The Book of Negroes by Lawrence Hill being her most highly rated book). She has also been more recently accused of being too caught up in American politics. This is only furthered between 11:05pm and 12:05am with her addiction to the political satire of Stewart & Colbert. Trying to find adventure in the everyday, Alyssa is usually hunting down new music, baking (followed closely by eating), trying new restaurants, on her yoga mat, running, or enjoying happy hour with the ladies in her life. Preferably all in one day. To sum it up, she'd like to be everywhere, meet everyone, read everything, and experience it all. If that's not too much to ask? Twitter: @alyssfowlr Instagram: @alyssafowlr https://pinterest.com/alyssafowlr/
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