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.
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About the Author
Tatiana de Rosnay is the author of over ten novels, including the New York Times bestseller Sarah's Key, an international sensation with over 11 million copies in 44 countries worldwide. Together with Dan Brown, Stephenie Meyer, and Stieg Larsson, she has been named one of the top ten fiction writers in Europe. De Rosnay lives in Paris.
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Paris, July 1942
The girl was the first to hear the loud pounding on the door. Her room was closest to the entrance of the apartment. At first, dazed with sleep, she thought it was her father, coming up from his hiding place in the cellar. He'd forgotten his keys, and was impatient because nobody had heard his first, timid knock. But then came the voices, strong and brutal in the silence of the night. Nothing to do with her father. "Police! Open up! Now!"
The pounding took up again, louder. It echoed to the marrow of her bones. Her younger brother, asleep in the next bed, stirred. "Police! Open up! Open up!" What time was it? She peered through the curtains. It was still dark outside.
She was afraid. She remembered the recent, hushed conversations she had overheard, late at night, when her parents thought she was asleep. She had crept up to the living room door and she had listened and watched from a little crack through the panel. Her father's nervous voice. Her mother's anxious face. They spoke their native tongue, which the girl understood, although she was not as fluent as them. Her father had whispered that times ahead would be difficult. That they would have to be brave and very careful. He pronounced strange, unknown words: "camps," "roundup, a big roundup," "early morning arrests," and the girl wondered what all of it meant. Her father had murmured that only the men were in danger, not the women, not the children, and that he would hide in the cellar every night.
He had explained to the girl in the morning that it would be safer if he slept downstairs, for a little while. Till "things got safe." What "things," exactly? thought the girl. What was "safe"? When would things be "safe" again? She wanted to find out what he had meant by "camp" and "roundup," but she worried about admitting she had eavesdropped on her parents, several times. So she had not dared ask him.
"Open up! Police!"
Had the police found Papa in the cellar, she asked herself. Was that why they were here, had the police come to take Papa to the places he had mentioned during those hushed midnight talks: the "camps," far away, out of the city?
The girl padded fast on silent feet to her mother's room, down the corridor. Her mother awoke the minute she felt a hand on her shoulder.
"It's the police, Maman," the girl whispered. "They're banging on the door."
Her mother swept her legs from under the sheets, brushed her hair out of her eyes. The girl thought she looked tired, old, much older than her thirty years.
"Have they come to take Papa away?" pleaded the girl, her hands on her mother's arms. "Have they come for him?"
The mother did not answer. Again the loud voices down the hallway. The mother swiftly put a dressing gown over her night dress, then took the girl by the hand and went to the door. Her hand was hot and clammy, like a child's, the girl thought.
"Yes?" the mother said timidly, without opening the latch.
A man's voice. He shouted her name.
"Yes, Monsieur, that is me," she answered. Her accent came out strong, almost harsh.
"Open up. Immediately. Police."
The mother put a hand to her throat and the girl noticed how pale she was. She seemed drained, frozen. As if she could no longer move. The girl had never seen such fear on her mother's face. She felt her mouth go dry with anguish.
The men banged again. The mother opened the door with clumsy, trembling fingers. The girl winced, expecting to see green-gray suits.
Two men stood there. One was a policeman, wearing his dark blue knee-length cape and a high, round cap. The other man wore a beige raincoat. He had a list in his hand. Once again, he said the woman's name. And the father's name. He spoke perfect French. Then we are safe, thought the girl. If they are French, and not German, we are not in danger. If they are French, they will not harm us.
The mother pulled her daughter close to her. The girl could feel the woman's heart beating through her dressing gown. She wanted to push her mother away. She wanted her mother to stand up straight and look at the men boldly, to stop cowering, to prevent her heart from beating like that, like a frightened animal's. She wanted her mother to be brave.
"My husband is . . . not here," stuttered the mother. "I don't know where he is. I don't know."
The man with the beige raincoat shoved his way into the apartment.
"Hurry up, Madame. You have ten minutes. Pack some clothes. Enough for a couple of days."
The mother did not move. She stared at the policeman. He was standing on the landing, his back to the door. He seemed indifferent, bored. She put a hand on his navy sleeve.
"Monsieur, please-," she began.
The policeman turned, brushing her hand away. A hard, blank expression in his eyes.
"You heard me. You are coming with us. Your daughter, too. Just do as you are told."
Copyright © 2007 by Tatiana de Rosnay. All rights reserved.
Reading Group Guide
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)
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