A shattering account of the roundup of Jewish families by French police in Paris on July 16, 1942 provides the background for de Rosnay’s novel, which also tells an important story largely overlooked by Holocaust literature. Over 13,000 Jews including 4,115 children aged between two and twelve, were arrested, deported, and sent to the crematoria of Auschwitz, after a horrifying transit via cattle cars to concentration camps along the way. There were few survivors of The Rafle du Vel’ d’Hiv (the name given to the raid, after the Velodrome d’Hiver – the indoor stadium in which the Jews were gathered, starved, sickened, and disheartened before their ensuing transit to the camps).
De Rosnay tells this moving and unforgettable tale through two alternating voices: Sarah, a ten-year old girl who was taken by the police but escaped, and Julia, a modern-day reporter in Paris who has been given the assignment, on the 60th anniversary of the Aktion, of finding out what actually happened.
Julia has a difficult time locating surviving spectators who are willing to talk. It was especially sensitive for the French because it was the French Vichy government, not the German Nazis, who carried out the roundup. And also because most Parisians just closed their eyes to what was happening. They did not want to be reminded of a past so freighted with accusation and guilt. Julia becomes fixated on the story, with her research carrying her far beyond what anyone anticipated.
It is Sarah’s story, however, that is so powerfully crafted that you feel as if you are experiencing, along with Sarah, her fear and vulnerability and the horrible pain and agony of loss. I have read a number of non-fiction books on survivors (such as the haunting New Lives: Survivors of the Holocaust Living in America by Dorothy Rabinowitz) and de Rosnay gets this part just right. Sarah’s elegiac words on the memory of 1942 – “Zakhor. Al Tichkah.” (Hebrew for “Remember. Never forget.”) – are also the words spoken by Jacques Chirac at the inauguration of a Holocaust Memorial in France in 2005.
De Rosnay does her best to make sure we too remember, and never forget. In her preface she writes: “This is not a historical work and has no intention of being one. It is my tribute to the children of the Vel’ d’Hiv’. The children who never came back. And the ones who survived to tell.”
Rating: 4/5 Kleenex packets!