In Tatiana de Rosnay’s book Sarah’s Key, Sarah is a 10 year-old Jewish girl whose family is apprehended by the French police in the notorioius Vel’ d’Hiv’ Roundup on July 16, 1942.
In the pre-dawn hours of July 16th (just two days after Bastille Day) French police and members of a French fascist party collaborated with the occupying German authorities and began raiding Jewish homes and apartments throughout Paris, arresting over 13,000 adults and children.
Although most of those apprehended were eventually sent to extermination camps, they were first taken to a building known as the Vel’ d’Hiv’, or Vélodrome d’Hiver (Winter Cycling Track) located at the corner of the Boulevard de Grenelle and the rue Nelaton just west of the Eiffel Tower. The building was used for various events in the 1924 Olympics, and at the time of the roundup it was available for private rental. The Germans obtained the keys from the French owner, although it isn’t clear whether it was only through force or threat of force.
In the book, Tatiana de Rosnay depicts the appalling conditions at the Vel’ d’hiv through the eyes of 10 year-old Sarah. The prisoners were denied nearly all food, water and bathroom facilities. The windows were nailed shut to prevent escape, which made it even hotter inside. The prisoners were kept there for about five days, after which they were taken to different internment camps, including Drancy, Beaune-la-Rolande and Pithiviers. Many were eventually sent to Auschwitz where they lost their lives.
A fire destroyed much of the velodrome in 1959. It was demolished and replaced with a group of anonymous looking government buildings. In 1993, Francois Mitterand commissioned a monument to be erected near the site on the edge of the Quai de Grenelle, and in 2008, a plaque was installed at the nearby Bir-Hakeim Metro Station. It was at a memorial service at the site in 1995 that Jacques Chirac issued an apology on behalf of the French government.
Vel d’Hiv Plaque and The Monument of the Deportees
Take Line 6 of the Paris Metro to the Bir-Hakeim station near the Eiffel Tower. Near the exit of the station along Boulevard de Grenelle, you will see the plaque, which acknowledges that 13,152 Jews were arrested and held there under inhumane conditions by the Vichy government, under orders of the occupying Nazis.
From the Metro station, walk north along Boulevard de Grenelle toward the Seine and cross to the opposite side of the Quai de Grenelle. There are a couple of entrances to the small park that contains the Vel’ d’hiv’ Momument.
Sarah’s Apartment at 36 rue de Saintonge
In the book, Sarah’s family lives at 36 rue de Saintonge, which is in the heart of the Marais district in the 3rd arrondissement of Paris. The Marais was the home of a thriving Jewish community that was the focus of the Vel’ d’Hiv Roundup. Although this is a fictional address, it is entirely possible that round-ups would have occurred on this block.
The area is within a short walking distance from the Arts and Metiers or Rambuteau Metro stops. I walked there on a dark and cloudy afternoon. The street is narrow and the old buildings lean gently inward. The street still has some sense of its former life as an old working class neighborhood, with some old-fashioned mom-and-pop tailoring and butcher shops still standing. However, the neighborhood has been gentrified, and a trendy women’s boutique now stands on the ground floor of Sarah’s fictional apartment building.
It’s a chilling feeling to stand on the quiet street full of cheerfully colored bicycles and motor scooters and imagine what could have happened there nearly 70 years ago.
The Shoah Memorial (Mémorial de la Shoah)
The Shoah Memorial was completed in 2005 and is a memorial, a museum and an archive dedicated to the victims of the Holocaust. It is located at 17 rue Geoffroy l’Asnier in the 4th arrondissement. I walked from rue de Saintonge, but it’s also close to several Metro stations: Saint-Paul, Hotel de Ville and Pont Marie. It is open Sunday-Friday from 10am – 6pm. The Shoah Memorial is an intense experience, but sometimes it is necessary to be reminded of our shame and our loss.
This entire Sarah’s Key literary tour could easily be accomplished in one day by hopping on and off the Metro. I can even recommend a nice cafe near the Arts et Metiers Metro Stop called Cafe des Arts et Metiers, at 51, rue de Turbigo. And of course there’s always the “best falafels in the world” at L’as du Falafel, 32 Rue des Rosiers in the Marais.
It will be a day you’ll probably never forget. If you haven’t already, pick up Sarah’s Key at your local independent bookstore and read its tragic but necessary story.