Set in 16th century Prague, Wishnia’s new mystery transforms Jewish sexton, Ben-Akiva, and his mentor, the famous Rabbi Loew, into an effective detective team in The Fifth Servant. Just before the start of Passover, a young Christian girl is found murdered inside a Jewish shop, which triggers accusations of blood libel and revives the threat of retribution against the entire Jewish community. As the newly arrived shammes in Prague, Ben has three days to prove that someone else is responsible for the crime, other the the arrested shopkeeper, Federn. Though Ben gains the support of Rabbi Loew, he is hampered by the Inquisition and by ghetto restrictions, so he must depend upon his clever wit and mazl (luck).
I’ll admit that for the first 50 pages or so, I had to keep checking the glossary — I really don’t have a strong background in 16th century Jewish terminology! Still, most of the unfamiliar phrases were readily explainable within their context, so it really didn’t disrupt my enjoyment of the book. The characters are well-developed and the story is richly layered with both spiritual and historical insight, but it is the fast-paced tension that makes this a true page-turner.
On July 16, 1942 thousands of Jewish families were rounded up in Paris and held under brutal conditions at the Vel’ d’Hiv’ train station before being shipped to Auschwitz and almost certain death. Although the orders were issued by the Nazi’s, they were carried out by the French police; most of the Jews were French citizens and almost no one came to their defense. Property and homes left behind by the Jews were quickly taken over by Parisians and the incident buried. While France has recently made an effort to acknowledge and apologize for this dark chapter in their history, and public memorials have been erected, it remains a story that is little known and even deliberately hidden.
Sarah’s Key by Tatiana de Rosnay brings this horrific story to life. Alternating chapters follow 10-year-old Sarah Starzynki and her family when they are brutally taken from their home in 1942 and present-day journalist Julia Jarmond who is writing a story about the little known roundup. The secret that Sarah carries with her – that, at his insistence, she has locked her little brother into a secret hiding place, believing she will return in a few hours – as well as the suffering she and her family endure shadows her life. Julia, an American living in Paris, discovers that her in-laws have a connection to Sarah, a family secret that they have tried to deny. Julia’s determination to find answers and to trace Sarah threaten her marriage and forever alter her view of her beloved adopted home.
This book is a real page turner – both stories are dramatic, full of twists and revealing of human character both at its worst and its best. There are interesting insights into how the people of Occupied France reacted to the persecution of the Jews, and how many modern French continue to dismiss or ignore their past. At one point someone asks Julia why she, an American born long after the war and with no connection to the tragedy, is so determined to find Sarah. Julia replies that she wants to apologize, “Sorry for not knowing. Sorry for being 45 years old and not knowing.” Reading Sarah’s Key can help all of us correct this error.