They had spent the months in Romainville very close together and it was as a train full of friends, who knew each other’s strengths and frailties, who had kept each other company at moments of terrible anguish, and who had fallen into a pattern of looking after each other, that they set out for the unknown.
Historian Caroline Moorehead’s A Train in Winter is a popular history of a group of women in the French Resistance who were rounded up and shipped to concentration camps during the Second World War. Their expulsion was part of the “Nacht und Nebel” (night and fog) directive, Hitler’s order to step up imprisonments and murders of activists and resistance groups, without allowing their fates to be known publicly or even by their families.
There had been rumours about labour camps in the east, particularly after the notes slipped out through the cracks in the wooden cattle trucks reached their families, sent on by the railway workers who had found them lying by the tracks. But the Nacht und Nebel decree had ensured that there had been a terrifying silence about their whereabouts.
This group biography has been a long time languisher on my to-read list, and I’m so glad I finally got around to it, because it’s a treasure even amongst no shortage of WWII histories. Moorehead writes briefly about how she began interviewing women from this group when they were already very old, but their memories of that time were so clear and strong. They connected to others from the group, and she travelled around France collecting their stories and piecing the narrative together. The book provides excellent context of the greater goings-on of the Resistance and the Nazi occupation/Vichy collaboration as the narrative advances to their point of their deportation.
I should point out that initially I found it a little tough to get into, thanks to a barrage of names, code names, and roles before the point of view quickly shifts to another woman, but it’s so worth sticking with. Further into the book, several of the main players begin to stand out, and for the rest, stories and events remain memorable, but I did have to let go of the hope of keeping track of everyone. That was a drawback but a small one, in my opinion, because the book was so good overall.
And a few of the women might stand out if you’re a frequent reader of WWII histories or memoirs. For example, I immediately recognized Charlotte Delbo, who went on to become a well known author and wrote extensively of her experiences in the camps. (I can recommend Days and Memory.) Genevieve de Gaulle, niece of Charles, then the leader of Free France, is also among them.
Most of the women profiled were Communists, all were eventually betrayed or caught, and sent to camps within occupied France before finding themselves on a transport, that titular train in winter, bound for Auschwitz. 230 women left the town of Compiègne together on January 24, 1943. Their survival rate was staggeringly low. But the interesting thing was that they took a different tack from what I’ve read in other survivor stories from the camps, choosing to draw on their strength together as opposed to alone. I think there’s usually more of an every (wo)man for (her)himself philosophy in these situations, but survivors from this group owed their lives to their friendships and refusal to separate.
To survive, they instinctively knew, they had to remain human, and to be human was to remember that there was another world, of decency and culture and plenty, however painful the memories were.
The French women banded together as much as possible even during later transfers to other camps. Of course, many of them don’t make it, as is typical for these kind of stories. But it felt so unique, both the strong sense of national identity that sustains them and their pre-Auschwitz relationships that allowed them to stay connected and hold on to their humanity in places where humanity is barely an afterthought. The details in their stories are so rich and vivid, some of them will stay with me forever.
But it’s not only a dark and grim camp story – it’s also a picture of life in occupied France before and after the war. In Auschwitz, the women dreamed of returning to normal life in the country they loved, with their families, but the reality was far from the dream.
When, later, they met, they admitted to one another that the return to France in the early summer of 1945 had proved as hard and as unhappy as anything they had known. Return, they said, was a time of ‘shadowy places, silences and things not said’.
It was horrifying and heartbreaking to read that after all they’d endured and survived, their countrymen refused to even believe them. This was one of the historical elements that stood out strongest to me. I’d heard of this denial before, but the examples here from their reintegration to French society, coming on the heels of what the reader has already seen through their eyes, are particularly ugly codas to the mistreatment they endured in the camps.
At a village fête, soon after her return, Hélène Bolleau talked a little about the camps. A farmer interrupted. ‘It can’t be true. If it was, you wouldn’t have survived.’ She cried for three days; then she stopped talking. [She] later told the others that she had met a woman who, seeing the numbers tattooed on her arm, said: ‘Oh, is that where you write your phone numbers? Or is it the new fashion?’
Sometimes this stubborn refusal to believe or national loss of memory was politically motivated and sanctioned, including by de Gaulle himself.
France was not altogether in the mood to hear what they had to say; and the men and women who had returned from the camps were not, for the most part, well enough, either physically or mentally, to make their voices heard. De Gaulle, pushing his myth of France as a country of united resisters betrayed by a handful of traitors, needed collective amnesia.
And, as is so necessary in a story like this, Moorehead highlights their moments of peace and transcendence over suffering, pain, death, and all the ugliness they’ve lived through in the war years. She excerpts their writing as well as quoting their oral storytelling, and it’s heartening to see the overriding humanity. I think that’s why stories like these are so timelessly powerful – the good manages to triumph over the evil, even in those who have seen their friends and families murdered or worked to death, who have been betrayed, denied, abused and lost so much, if not everything.
They had learnt, they would say, the full meaning of friendship, a commitment to each other that went far deeper than individual liking or disliking; and they now felt wiser, in some indefinable way, because they had understood the depths to which human beings can sink and equally the heights to which it is possible to rise.
A detailed group biography and history, deserving of a read even if you’re already well read in the stories of this era – it seems like there’s always something new to learn about this time and place, and seeing it through the lives and brave actions of these women is truly remarkable.
A Train in Winter:
An Extraordinary Story of Women, Friendship, and Resistance in Occupied France
by Caroline Moorehead
published November 8, 2011 by Harper
To end on a lighter note, sometimes while reading I was inadvertently reminded of the old BBC sitcom ‘Allo ‘Allo, about the owner of a cafe in occupied France who finds himself and his family caught up in various activities of the Resistance and occupation. It’s hilarious, I highly recommend if you’ve never seen it.
Here’s Michelle Dubois, the show’s local Resistance character: