On the morning of Jan. 24, 1943, German soldiers and French policemen herded 230 women aboard a train bound for a destination about which these passengers knew nothing. About half of them were communists who in one way or another had aided — or been charged with aiding — the French Resistance. “The majority,” Caroline Moorehead writes, “came from every part and region of France, from Paris, Bordeaux, Brittany, Normandy, Aquitaine and along the banks of the Loire. They had sheltered resisters, written and copied out anti-German pamphlets, hidden weapons in shopping bags, helped carry out acts of sabotage.” Among them were a doctor, a dentist, four chemists, “farmers, shopkeepers, women who had worked in factories and in the post office, teachers, and secretaries,” as well as dressmakers, students and housewives.
When the train finally stopped, after a cold and singularly unpleasant journey, the women found themselves in “a vast white snowy landscape, deserted, flat and frozen.” They were marched across this landscape, under a sign that read “Arbeit Macht Frei” and into an immense camp. “Had they heard the words Auschwitz or Birkenau, they would have meant nothing to them.” They stayed there for two years, until the end of the war. Forty-nine of them survived, and, given the unspeakable conditions into which they were thrust, it is a miracle that this many made it to freedom. They made it because they had developed formidable survival skills and for two overriding reasons: “They had lived because each of them had been incredibly lucky, and because of the friendship between them, which had protected them and made it easier to withstand the barbarity.”
Their story, as Moorehead tells it in this compelling and moving book, is more of survival than of triumph. Some of them managed to return to lives that suggested normality — marriage or remarriage, children, high honors from the French government and others — and incredibly, four of them were still alive as “A Train in Winter” went to press. But virtually all of them were haunted by what they had undergone, in particular by memories of the friends who had perished in Heinrich Himmler’s hell on Earth, and some of them by recurrent dreams that made the Holocaust a living presence in their lives.
Moorehead obviously likes and admires these women, especially those who lived long enough to talk to her about their experiences before, during and after the death camp, but she does not romanticize them; they are real people, with shortcomings as well as strengths, and some of them are so fully portrayed as to become vivid presences. Moorehead has a soft spot for the French communists — they were “resilient, energetic and prepared to sacrifice themselves,” and “it was no accident that all but a few of the survivors had been active politically, committed to shared beliefs in a better future, and accustomed to hardship and discipline” — but she indulges this only a few times, and it does not seriously affect her narrative. What matters is that she is generally as tough-minded as were the women themselves, sparing the reader little in describing the cruelties in France during the Occupation (many of them inflicted by the French themselves) and the far greater ones of Auschwitz and Birkenau.
The first half of “A Train in Winter” is necessarily taken up with setting the scene in France as the women became variously involved with the Resistance in its early stages and as the Nazi grip on their country grew ever tighter and, in its brutality, ever more capricious. French collaboration was widespread, especially among the police, who were seduced with improved pay and other privileges; eventually their Special Brigades pursued with “sophistication and tenacity” those whom the Nazis considered undesirable — the list, of course, was long and inclusive. Eagerly abetted by the French police, the Nazis conducted mass reprisals for the killings of German soldiers and officials, usually murdering 10 French hostages for every German victim. The slaughter of 27 Frenchmen at Chateaubriand in October 1941 was only one among many, “but the name Chateaubriand would enter the consciousness not only of the French, but of the Allies, as a symbol of German brutality.”
The women began to be imprisoned at Romainville in Paris in August 1942 in difficult but manageable conditions. The result could scarcely have been planned by the Nazis: “All across the women’s section, in the dormitories, on the staircase, in the courtyard . . . friendships were born and grew, women separated by age, schooling, class and profession drawn into patterns of affection and understanding by shared stories and similar losses. Grieving for their executed husbands, missing their children, fearful for their families, they talked, for there was not much else to do; and, as they talked, they felt stronger and better able to cope.” Indeed, by the time they had been installed in Birkenau, “friendship between the French women had, if possible, grown stronger,” and it continued to strengthen right up to the end. Of course, there were differences and even rare spats, but these friendships were essential to the women’s lives.
Birkenau “had, since the late spring of 1942, been the main women’s camp in the Auschwitz complex,” but though the prisoners were separated by sex, they were subjected to the same agonies. Before being taken to the camp, one of the women wrote, “Some days I think that I have reached the limits of horror,” but she could not have imagined Birkenau. A prisoner named Simone Alizon, one of the survivors, could not forget one Sunday there:
“She was standing in a line of Polish women when a lorry with SS men stopped close by. One leant out and indicated that a number of the women were to fall out. One of these was a mother with twin girls of about eight or nine. She clung to them, but was yanked away and pushed on to the lorry, which then drove off. The little girls, left standing on their own, were crying. Simone took one by each hand and when the whistle blew to return to the barracks, she began to lead them away, singing to them. But then two SS women appeared, unleashed their dogs and gave an order in German. The dogs leapt on the girls and seized them by the throat. Simone stood paralysed. When the dogs were ordered to let go, the girls were dead, their faces savaged beyond recognition.”
That Simone “did not say a single word” to anyone for days after this inexpressible horror can scarcely come as a surprise, yet she somehow survived it and the camp, “married and had two daughters and was awarded the Légion d’honneur,” and lives to this day; she was the youngest of the survivors and is now in her late 80s. This the reader can learn in an appendix in which Moorehead describes, as best the evidence permits, the fates of all these women. Readers will find themselves, as I did, turning to this appendix over and over again while reading the text.
The literature of wartime France and the Holocaust is by now so vast as to confound the imagination, but when a book as good as this comes along, we are reminded that there is always room for something new. As the paragraph just quoted makes plain, reading “A Train in Winter” can be hard indeed, but it is a necessary book.
A TRAIN IN WINTER
An Extraordinary Story of Women, Friendship, and Resistance in Occupied France
By Caroline Moorehead
Harper. 374 pp. $27.99