Caroline Moorehead

A Train in Winter

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A Train in Winter Summary

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A Train in Winter: An Extraordinary Story of Women, Friendship, and Resistance in Occupied France (2011) by Caroline Moorehead tells the story of 230 women of the French Resistance who were sent to the death camps by the Nazis who occupied their country in January 1943. Moorehead, a biographer and human rights journalist, relays the women’s tale—a journey filled with fear, bravery, and survival. Through the power of friendship, the courageous women sacrificed everything to battle against the march of evil taking place across the world.

The first half of the book is devoted to setting the scene in France, in which women involved themselves in the early stages of the resistance as the Nazi grip tightened around the country and its brutality increased. Moorehead observes that French collaboration with the Nazis was widespread, particularly among the police, who were incentivized with improved pay and various other privileges.

Ultimately, France’s Special Brigades would tenaciously pursue those the Nazis considered undesirable, a long and inclusive list. Aided by the French police, the Nazis issued mass retaliation for killings of German officials and soldiers, typically murdering ten French citizens for each German victim. The killing at Chateaubriand in October 1941, which saw the slaughter of twenty-seven Frenchmen, was only one among several.

Beginning in 1942, in different parts of the country, women of the resistance began to be rounded up and delivered to La Santé prison in Paris, where they would be tortured, and then, they would be taken to Romainville, a military fort where several of the women witnessed their lovers’ and husbands’ executions by firing squad. This saw the start of the formation of deep friendship among the women—women separated by age, which ranged from seventeen to sixty-seven, as well as their education level, class, and profession, who were compelled by shared stories and similar losses. Together, they grieved for their husbands, missed their children, and feared for their families, and this bond made them feel stronger and better able to cope with their conditions and circumstances.

Then, on January 24, 1943, French policemen and German soldiers rounded up 230 women of the resistance and put them on a train that was bound for a destination the passengers knew nothing about. Roughly half of the women were communists who had been charged with aiding the French Resistance. They had sheltered resisters, created and copied anti-German pamphlets, and helped with carrying out acts of sabotage. The group was made up of Christians and Jews, the young, the old, and the aristocratic and working class. They included farmers and shopkeepers, factory workers and teachers, and students and housewives.

When the train stopped, the women found themselves in a snowy white landscape and were promptly marched into a massive camp. Since 1942, Birkenau had operated as the main women’s camp within the Auschwitz complex. There, the women’s clothes were stripped from their bodies, their belongings were confiscated, their body hair was cut, their arms were tattooed, and they were made to join the ranks of the 15,000 emaciated prisoners of the camp.

Soon, the women would experience unthinkable torments inflicted by the Nazi guards. On February 10, 1943, all of the inmates were ushered out to the prison yard at 3:00 a.m. and made to stand in the snow, ice, and brutally cold wind until day broke and night fell again. By the time the women were ordered to return to their barracks, 1,000 of them had dropped dead.

In another scene Moorehead describes, a Polish woman has her twin girls yanked from her arms before she is pushed on to a lorry and driven away. Two SS women then appear and unleash their dogs on the girls, which seize each of them by the throat and kill them within a few minutes.

Such scenes were all too common at the camp, but the women came to withstand the horrors as best they could through their deep bond. When one of the women, Charlotte Delbo, was driven by her thirst to drink mud from the marshes of the camp, the others pooled together their own rations to give her an entire bucket of water. In another instance, a woman named Aimée Doridat had to undergo an amputation of her gangrenous leg, and the other women ensured she was hidden during the guards’ periodic searches for extermination candidates. When yet another, Germaine Pican, found a dead crow in the camp’s marshes, she shared its meat with her fellow prisoners.

As they suffered together, Moorehead writes, the women kept one another company in moments of horrible anguish, and they cared for each other. After two years in unspeakable conditions, only 49 of the 230 women survived, four of whom were still alive when A Train in Winter was published.