Thursday, November 22, 2012

A Train in Winter by Caroline Moorehead


They were teachers, students, chemists, writers, and housewives; a singer at the Paris Opera, a midwife, a dental surgeon. They distributed anti-Nazi leaflets, printed subversive newspapers, hid resisters, secreted Jews to safety, transported weapons, and conveyed clandestine messages. The youngest was a schoolgirl of fifteen who scrawled "V" for victory on the walls of her lycée; the eldest, a farmer's wife in her sixties who harbored escaped Allied airmen. Strangers to each other, hailing from villages and cities from across France, these brave women were united in hatred and defiance of their Nazi occupiers.
Eventually, the Gestapo hunted down 230 of these women and imprisoned them in a fort outside Paris. Separated from home and loved ones, these disparate individuals turned to one another, their common experience conquering divisions of age, education, profession, and class, as they found solace and strength in their deep affection and camaraderie.

In January 1943, they were sent to their final destination: Auschwitz. Only forty-nine would return to France.

A Train in Winter draws on interviews with these women and their families; German, French, and Polish archives; and documents held by World War II resistance organizations to uncover a dark chapter of history that offers an inspiring portrait of ordinary people, of bravery and survival—and of the remarkable, enduring power of female friendship.
The whole title of this book is A Train in Winter: A Story of Resistance, Friendship and Survival in Auschwitz. I don't read a lot of non-fiction but I knew I wanted to read this one as soon as it came out. I think part of the reason I was so interested is that I do find reading about people's experiences in big conflicts like WWI and WWII fascinating. I am aware that I could probably read non-fiction about WWII exclusively as there is a lot out there but I need a hook to catch my attention. In this case, the hook was the fact that the book was about a group of women who were active in the French Resistance and ended up being captured and then sent to the death camps like Auschwitz and Birkenau, among other places. The book follows a group of 230 women, all French political prisoners, from their activities in the Resistance to their capture and initial captivity in the French prisons and their eventual secret deportment to Auschwitz on Le Convoi des 31000, one of the only trains to contain female resistance prisoners. Of these 230 women, only 49 returned.

Broken into two parts, the first part provides the reader with background to life in France during the early days of the German invasion, the formation of the Vichy government, and then the initial resistance activity. We meet communist intellectuals who put out anti-Nazi newspapers, the couriers who deliver messages and copies of the newspapers, women who helped host people fleeing from the Nazis including other activists as well as Jewish people. While a lot of the people we meet lived and worked in Paris, there were also groups of people who were working in cities and towns in rural France. There were young women who were still in their teens, and older women with grown children, mothers with young children and so many more.

The second part focuses on their life within the camps, the constant stream of new arrivals and the daily horror that awaited them. Starved, beaten, sick, forced to stand for hours at a time in freezing condition, lice-ridden - the list of terrors go on and on. Forced to work in the infirmaries and to witness some of the medical experiments but it does also give them opportunities to try and save some lives where they can. One of the things that helps those women that do survive is their reliance on each other, their solidarity for want of a better term. It also touches on the difficulties of returning to 'normal' life, to the children who don't know the women who return, the memories, and more. One of the more telling quotes from the book comes from one of the survivors:

Looking at me, one would think that I'm alive....I'm not alive. I died in Auschwitz, but no one knows it.

The author does a good job of sharing just enough information about each woman, but there are a lot of them and there were times that there was just too many women that the reader had to try and keep track of. I am not sure if a couple of more in depth profiles of chosen people might have had just as big an emotional effect as so many smaller details. Even with this criticism, this book did pack an emotional punch. There were times that I cringed as I read about the terrible acts of inhumanity that these women were subjected to, along with millions of others who didn't fit the Nazi ideal of acceptableness, like the Jews but also other groups like gypsies, homosexuals, and so many more. I found the sections that talked about the fate of many of the young children and babies born in the camps to be particularly heartrending.

There are photos liberally spread throughout the book. Some of them included the children that the women left behind, some pictures of the camps and more. I must say one photo that did affect me was one of a group of German guards, mostly female, in the prison camps looking very happy. Given that it was strategically placed in the text in sections where they talked about how vicious some of these women guards were, it was hard to equate these happy, smiling faces with some of the sadistic punishments that were meted out.

One of the things that I found amazing about these women was that while a lot of them were politically active as individuals, there were others who took up roles in the various resistance organisations after their husbands/brothers/lovers/fathers were arrested and taken away by the Germans. They KNEW the risks they were taking, they did their best to avert those risks but they still took up the work of distributing anti-German literature, or helping people cross borders into safer areas or whatever it is that they were doing. Sometimes they were caught thanks to the work of the French police who worked with the Gestapo, other times they were just caught almost by accident. Other women were denounced by their neighbours for listening to the BBC, which was banned, and in a couple of cases there was no evidence that the women were actually involved in any way but they were still rounded up and ended up in the prison camps.

What I wasn't expecting was to find myself contemplating big questions about myself. We are lucky to live a pretty easy life in that there haven't been any major wars in Australia. I did find myself wondering if I would have the strength of conviction to be an active resister if we were invaded. Would I have the fortitude to physically survive the terrible conditions and the mental strength to come back and live my life after seeing the many terrible things that these women were subjected to and witnessed? Having contemplated it for a while, I think that the fact of the matter is that I would probably not be a resister but would be more of the keep your head down and do the best to survive kind of mentality. I most certainly would have struggled physically and mentally! Heck, I struggle now at times.

The other thing that I do find myself pondering is about how a country like France moved on from the effects of the war, particularly when you think about the collaborators, the police who followed the German orders, the judges who enforced German laws. For example, how do you look your neighbour in the eye if you suspect that they were the one who denounced you to the Germans? How long did these after effects impact on life in French society? In the final section, the author talked about the fact that the last of the collaborators were released from prison in the late 1960s, which isn't long before I was born. Is the past fully in the past and if so how long did it colour daily life for the country as a whole?

I did think that the author drew some interesting conclusions. When looking at the women who survived there was an inference that it was only a certain age of woman who was likely to survive, and that they were most likely to be those with certain beliefs who were strong enough to stand the experiences that they were being subjected to. I am not quite sure why this was the conclusion that was reach, whether it was an agenda at the beginning of the process or if it was a more organic conclusion.

This is a very interesting book about a very important subject. After the war, there were only comparatively few women who were individually recognised for their bravery and their work in the resistance. This book attempts to redress that in some small way. It isn't a book that you can just get lost in or reading in a single sitting. The subject matter is confronting and distressing, and as you can see had me contemplating some pretty big questions in my own mind. I am glad that I took the opportunity to read this book as part of the tour.


  1. I am making a note of this book and hope that someday I will get to it. I doubt the past ever being the past - especially if you or your predecessors have lived through it. We finished a civil war three years ago, which lasted thirty years - doubtful that the feelings and effects of it are going to die down in a generation.

  2. And that's exactly what I find fascinating. While we are now a couple of generations from the end of WWII, it really isn't that far yet!

  3. I keep finding little things, small stories, of great inspiration from this period. I work with veterans everyday and have such a great respect for them all, but especially those from WWII. I will have to put this book on my list.