Friday, January 11, 2013

A Train in Winter: A Story of Resistance, Friendship, and Survival, by Caroline Moorehead

Barnes & Noble

They were the courageous women of the French Resistance. Their actions put them in the gravest danger. Their friendship would keep them strong. On an icy morning in Paris in January 1943, 230 French women resisters were rounded up from the Gestapo detention camps and sent on a train to Auschwitz--the only train, in the four years of German occupation, to take women of the resistance to a death camp. The youngest was a schoolgirl of 15, the eldest a farmer's wife of 68; among them were teachers, biochemists, sales girls, secretaries, housewives and university lecturers.

Caroline Moorehead's remarkable new book is the story of who these women were, how and why they joined the resistance, how they were captured and treated by the French police and the Gestapo, their journey to Auschwitz and their daily life in the death camps--and about what it was like for the 49 survivors when they returned to France. Six of the women were still alive in 2010 and able to tell their stories of the great affection and camaraderie that took hold among the group. They became friends, and it was precisely this friendship that kept so many of them alive.

Drawing on interviews with survivors and their families, on German, French and Polish archives, and on documents held by WW2 resistance organisations, A Train in Winter covers a harrowing part of history but is, ultimately, a portrait of ordinary people, of bravery and endurance, and of the particular qualities of female friendship.

I like to think of myself as the kind of person who would always do the right thing and fight for what I believe in. But after listening to A Train in Winter, I'm no longer as sure.

Am I willing to give up my life? The lives of my family? I don't know. But the women of the French Resistance did just that. They fought against the WWII Nazi occupation of Paris. They helped French Jews escape to the free Vichy government in the south. They were warned to stop their subversive activities, were arrested, and went right back to fighting. When they could have fled, they chose instead to stay. Only to be arrested again and eventually sent to labor and concentration camps.

Everyone knows the stories of what happened in those camps, so I won't go into them here. It was hard enough listening to the narrator describe the atrocities; I have no desire to write about them.

Suffice it to say, I don't think I would have been strong enough to survive. And not all of them did. Most of the women died of hunger or cold, or were killed by the Nazis. Those that were liberated at the end of the war were home, but were never free of their nightmares.

My only dislike? The first 35% of the book was full of names, which made it hard to figure out who was who, what they were doing, and how they related back to one another.

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