An Extraordinary Story of Women, Friendship and Survival in World War Two
Written by Caroline Moorehead
Format: Hardcover, 384 pages
Publisher: Random House Canada
ISBN: 978-0-307-35694-9 (0-307-35694-9)
Pub Date: November 1, 2011
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“How can you do this work if you have a child?” asked her mother.
“It is because I have a child that I do it,” replied Cecile. “This is not a world I wish her to grow up in.”
On January 24, 1943, 230 women were placed in four cattle trucks on a train in Compiegne, in northeastern France, and the doors bolted shut for the journey to Auschwitz. They were members of the French Resistance, ranging in age from teenagers to the elderly, women who before the war had been doctors, farmers’ wives, secretaries, biochemists, schoolgirls. With immense courage they had taken up arms against a brutal occupying force; now their friendship would give them strength as they experienced unimaginable horrors. Only forty-nine of the Convoi des 31000 would return from the camps in the east; within ten years, a third of these survivors would be dead too, broken by what they had lived through. In this vitally important book, Caroline Moorehead tells the whole story of the 230 women on the train, for the first time. Based on interviews with the few remaining survivors, together with extensive research in French and Polish archives, A Train in Winter is an essential historical document told with the clarity and impact of a great novel.
Caroline Moorehead follows the women from the beginning, starting with the disorganized, youthful and high-spirited activists who came together with the Occupation, and chronicling their links with the underground intellectual newspapers and Communist cells that formed soon afterwards. Postering and graffiti grew into sabotage and armed attacks, and the Nazis responded with vicious acts of mass reprisal – which in turn led to the Resistance coalescing and developing. Moorehead chronicles the women’s roles in victories and defeats, their narrow escapes and their capture at the hands of French police eager to assist their Nazi overseers to deport Jews, resisters, Communists and others. Their story moves inevitably through to its horrifying last chapters in Auschwitz: murder, starvation, disease and the desperate struggle to survive. But, as Moorehead notes, even in the most inhuman of places, the women of the Convoi could find moments of human grace in their companionship: “So close did each of the women feel to the others, that to die oneself would be no worse than to see one of the others die.”
Uncovering a story that has hitherto never been told, Caroline Moorehead exhibits the skills that have made her an acclaimed biographer and historian. In this book she places the reader utterly in the world of wartime France, casting light on what it was like to experience horrific terrors and face impossible moral dilemmas. Through the sensitive interviews on which the book is based, she tells personal and individual stories of courage, solace and companionship. In this way, A Train in Winter ultimately becomes a valuable memorial to a unique group of heroines, and a testimony to the particular power of women’s friendship even in the worst places on earth.
Of the 40,760 résistants politiques who came home, 8,872 were women. It said much about the way that the women's role in the Resistance was perceived in France that of the 1,053 people eventually made Compagnons de la Libération – the highest honour – only six were women. In keeping with de Gaulle's image of a heroic band of fighters, true resisters were portrayed in the public eye as armed men, carrying out acts of sabotage or engaging in combat with the enemy. The parts played by women – messengers, couriers, printers, distributors of banned literature, providers of safe houses – did not seem quite heroic enough. And among the women themselves there was a tendency to belittle what they had done, to say that it had been no more than what they always did, as women. Returning to France, most of them slipped back into the shadows.
One of the few who was not forgotten was Danielle Casanova, quickly celebrated as a new Joan of Arc, a martyred communist heroine, the supreme patriot and symbol of resistance. Babies and streets were named after her and her picture put on to medallions and posters. For a while, it was thought best that her husband Laurent should not confess to having married someone else, but appear as devoting his life to the cult of his dead wife.
Even before they left the camps, some of the French deportees had discussed the formation, when they got home, of amicales, associations which would bring survivors together and lobby for their rights. Marie-Claude and Madeleine Dechavassine took leading roles in starting an Amicale des Déportés d’Auschwitz, Birkenau et des Camps de Haute-Silésie, and by October 1945 a Fédération Nationale des Déportés et Internés Résistants et Patriotes had been formed, with rooms in the rue Leroux in Paris where the Gestapo had once had offices. Many of the concerns revolved around the health of the deportees, who suffered from what became known as the syndrome des déportés; this included chronic exhaustion, digestive problems and depression.
The people left out from nearly all the deliberations, however, were the Jews, of whom only a fraction of those deported returned. In part because so few came back and in part because the extermination camps of Poland had been largely destroyed by the departing Germans, and in any case now lay within the Soviet zone of occupation, the early stories of the death camps were written not by the Jews but by the communists. But it was more complicated than this. Simone Veil, deported as a Jew with her family, would later say that the surviving resisters were quick to scorn and marginalise Jewish survivors. 'They, they had fought against the Nazis. We, we were nothing.' Neither de Gaulle nor anyone else was keen to admit that much of France had not only tolerated anti-Semitism and xenophobia but actually anticipated German wishes in identifying and deporting Jews.
A New York Times Notable Book
“Moving.... Moorehead tells her appalling story in a measured prose that sets off pefectly the reader’s growing sense of wonder that such heroism is possible.”
“Compelling and moving.”
—The Washington Post
“Delivers fresh insights into a little explored and unexpected area of Second World War history.... A serious and heartfelt book.”
—The Sunday Times
“The first complete account of these extraordinary women…. Moorehead’s group portrait offers an important new perspective.”
—The Boston Globe
“By turns heartbreaking and inspiring.”
—The New York Times Book Review
“Moorehead’s riveting history stands as a luminous testament to the indomitable will to survive, and the unbreakable bonds of friendship.”
—Booklist (starred review)
Caroline Moorehead is the biographer of Bertrand Russell, Freya Stark, Iris Origo and Martha Gellhorn. Well known for her work in human rights, she has published a history of the Red Cross and a book about refugees, Human Cargo, and her most recent book is Dancing to the Precipice, a biography of Lucie de la Tour du Pin. She lives in London and Italy.
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