A Train in Winter: An Extraordinary Story of Women, Friendship, and Resistance in Occupied France

by Caroline Moorehead

Harper, 2011

374 pages

I don’t really remember when I first learned about World War II. Probably very early in childhood, since I grew up with a grandfather who often told stories of his time in “The War.”

I also don’t really remember when I first learned about the Holocaust, but I remember being well aware of it by the time I was in junior high.

That was when I read Anne Frank’s diary, which honestly didn’t have much of an impact on me. But Elie Wiesel’s Night, which I read in high school, affected me deeply. So did a trip to a Holocaust lecture series at a local university. I still remember, with crystal clarity, attending a survivors’ panel where a white-haired man slowly rolled up his shirt sleeve to reveal the number tattooed on the inside of his arm.

Both subjects – the Holocaust and the war as a whole – fascinated me, and I learned quite a bit about them on my own. I realized not long ago, however, that all my investigation had fallen between fairly narrow parameters: I had studied the Holocaust as an event in Jewish history, and World War II as it related to Americans and Britons.

I knew there was a lot more to the story, and I was especially curious about the French Resistance and about non-Jewish victims of the Holocaust. So when Caroline Moorehead published A Train in Winter: An Extraordinary Story of Women, Friendship, and Resistance in Occupied France, it caught my attention.

The book’s title refers to a train that left Paris for Auschwitz in January 1943. On board were over 200 women arrested by the Gestapo for working with the French Resistance. The women were a diverse group, in terms of profession, age, and the activities that led to their capture.

After a stint in two French prisons – where many of their husbands, lovers, brothers, and fathers were beaten and executed – they were deported to Auschwitz as a symbol of the Nazis’ “indulgence” toward women. Because the women weren’t Jewish, they weren’t marked for immediate extermination; instead, their guards intended to literally work them to death.

And that’s what happened in most cases. The women performed sometimes back-breaking labor under horrific conditions. Sanitation was nonexistent, food and water rations virtually so. Those who didn’t die from sheer exhaustion succumbed to conditions like dysentery, typhus, dehydration, or gangrene. Others were beaten to death for sport or as punishment for defiance.

Of the 230 women originally arrested, only 45 survived.

If this book sounds like a heavy read, it is. It’s one of those books you can’t finish in one sitting. Some days, I did well just to get through a few pages. Moorehead’s account of the women’s suffering, particularly in Auschwitz, is graphic and brutal.

And because Moorehead tells their individual stories, in many cases beginning in childhood, you’re invested in their fates. Like the man I saw at the Holocaust conference, they are much more than the numbers tattooed on their arms. So when you realize that only 45 survive, and learn that many of those 45 lived shattered lives after the war, it’s devastating.

But here’s the thing: that survival rate of 20% was very, very high. Groups brought into Auschwitz typically died at a rate of 90-100%.  The difference between 10% and 20% is what makes this book worth the effort – is what makes it inspiring.

As Moorehead shows in heart-wrenching detail, the French women’s high survival rate was a direct result of their conscious decision to look after one another. Beginning in the French prisons, they chose to protect the oldest and youngest and weakest among them.

When they reached Auschwitz, they continued to help one another. While most inmates ultimately turned to aggressive self-preservation, the Resistance women took a different path. Because illness or weakness attracted beatings (which were usually fatal), and incapacitation meant a trip to the gas chambers, the women went to great lengths to protect their sick or fatigued compatriots. The “healthy” ones shared their meager rations with their sick friends, hid them behind curtains and under bunks, and lied about their whereabouts. Stronger women propped up weaker ones at roll call and secretly completed work assignments for them.

It was often a fruitless endeavor, and sometimes earned death for the protectors. But they continued to do it until the day the survivors went home.

In the face of the ultimate dehumanization and a concerted effort to wipe them out, they stood strong – not just for themselves, but for others. They kept small, flickering flames burning in the midst of one of the deepest darknesses history has ever seen. So when I finished A Train in Winter, I was glad I’d read it. And I think you will be, too.

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