Sarah’s Key tells the story of two people, a young girl and a middle-aged woman, and the remote connection between their lives in France. In the beginning of the novel, the chapters alternate between the two separate lives of Sarah and Julia.
In 1942, ten-year-old Sarah is awakened by pounding at her family’s apartment door. It is the French police; Sarah believes they are looking for her father, who has been hiding in the basement. But the police have actually arrived to take Sarah’s entire family. Her mother tells Sarah to wake her younger brother, Michel, so they can gather their belongings. To protect him, Sarah decides to hide Michel in their secret cupboard in the bedroom. Sarah believes they will be home soon to rescue Michel, so she locks him inside and hides the key in her pocket.
As they follow the police, Sarah’s distraught mother screams her husband’s name until he comes out of hiding to join them. The family is brought to a large garage where there are many other families. Sarah believes this is a temporary misunderstanding. When Sarah’s father begins to ask details about Michel she is disturbed by his concern. Sarah sees that her father is not telling her everything and she demands some answers. When he fails to respond, she realizes that she has placed Michel in grave danger.
The families are then loaded onto buses and taken away from the city. They are brought to a stadium filled with people. As she notes the yellow stars on each jacket, Sarah finally realizes that they have all been brought there simply because they are Jewish.
The conditions in the arena are inhumane. Days later, the Jews are loaded onto trains that will take them to a facility in the country. There, the men are separated from the women, and then the women are cruelly taken from their children. Sarah meets Rachel, a girl her age who has a plan to escape. Desperate to get back to Michel, Sarah agrees to go with her. They barely manage to escape with the help of a guard who recognizes Sarah from their neighborhood.
The girls walk for days and finally come across a house where Jules and Genevieve Dufaure kindly take them in. Rachel falls sick and dies from dysentery. Sarah is haunted by thoughts of Michel, and when she feels stronger, she tells the couple that she is leaving to go back to Paris to find out what happened to him. The couple agrees to help her. Together, they manage to get by the French police and German guards and make it to Sarah’s family apartment in Paris.
When they arrive, they find a new family living in the apartment. Sarah is intent on getting straight to the cupboard, which is now hidden in a young boy’s bedroom. She stops when she gets close and smells the unmistakable odor of death. She collapses on the floor. The couple explains the situation, and the father of the new family quickly opens the cupboard and pulls out the decayed body of Michel. Sarah releases a mournful wail for herself, her mother, and her father.
In 2002, Julia Jarmond, her daughter Zoë, and her husband Bertrand Tézac are preparing to move into the Paris apartment Bertrand inherited from his grandmother.
Julia is a journalist and has been assigned to cover the sixtieth commemoration of the Vel’ d'Hiv. The Vèlodrome d’Hiver Stadium is where, in July of 1942, thousands of French Jews, including children, were arrested by the French police and then sent to Auschwitz to be gassed. Julia discusses Vel’ d’Hiv with various Parisians and realizes that very few remember, or want to be reminded of, that time in history.
On a visit to Mamé, Julia discovers that Bertrand’s grandparents moved into the apartment in the summer of 1942. Julia questions Mamé about the circumstances of their move, but Mamé quickly ends the conversation. Julia surmises that the apartment she will live in once belonged to one of the Vel’ d’Hiv Jewish families.
Julia discovers that she is pregnant. Although she is already 45, she is...
(The entire section is 1,225 words.)