A Train In Winter
By Caroline Moorehead
2011 release by Harper Collins
384 pages, Hard Cover
This book falls under the heading of true crime. It deals with mass murder, attempted genocide and a side of France in the 1940’s that is generally not well-known. This is also one of the most difficult and amazing books I have ever had the priviledge of reading. This is, as the cover states, “an extraordinary story of women, friendship and resistance in occupied France.”
In mid-June, 1940, the German army occupied Paris and France fell. There was, for a while, a partition, Vichy France under the aging Marshall Petain. At first, relations between the occupiers and the subjugated French were almost cordial. During the next two years many of France’s second-class citizens, it’s women, took up the battle and became foundations and facilitators of the much celebrated French Resistance, all over the nation. It’s noteworthy that French women were denied the priviledge of voting until 1944. Ironically, dismissive attitudes toward women worked to their advantage as they became top organizers and couriers in the resistance.
Gradually, informers and collaborators working with the Gestapo amassed evidence of women’s activities, arresting and gathering women into prisons. In January, 1943, 230 women, the youngest 15, the oldest in her sixties, were loaded into cattle cars and shipped east, to Auschwitz. Only 49 survived to the end of the war. This is the well-documented story of those women.
The author has, through extensive archival research, personal interviews with survivors, and family members, and the development of original sources, pieced together the individual and collective stories of these ordinary yet incredible women. The stories are set against the political and the social turmoil of the times. The women, from all classes of society across the political and social spectrums, bonded together to support one another in fighting for their survival. They had no weapons save their wits, their intelligence and their essential humanity, against a huge and terrible effort to obliterate them. Only a few were Jews. That any survived is testament to their grit, their determination and their mutual support.
This work is meticulously documented with an extensive bibliography, source notes by chapter, and short biographies of the women who live again in these pages. Moorehead’s tone is straightforward; no hysteria, no loud condemnations, there are no exclamation points. But the book, in the weight of its facts here illuminated, is condemnatory. It condems Nazis, the Gestapo, and French collaborators as well as the post-war government of France which preferred to forget much of the pestilence that came with the occupying German army.
This is a book that should be read by anyone with the slightest interest in human rights and human history. It throws a bright light on an aspect of World War II in Europe little known or studied. And the book is a reminder that we who ignore the lessons of history will inevitably suffer repetition of those devastations.