Caroline Moorhead’s A Train in Winter: An Extraordinary Story of Women, Friendship, and Resistance in Occupied France tells the startling story of what would come to be known as the “31,000 Convoi,” a group of 230 non-Jewish French women from all over France who were transported to Auschwitz-Birkenau in January 1942 for their roles in the French resistance against the Nazis and the Vichy government. The women came from all walks of life and ranged in age from 16 to 67; most would perish in the ensuing two years as they struggled to survive at Birkenau, a brutal women’s camp at Auschwitz. By forging strong bonds of friendship and support, the women figured out ways to help each other survive; as horror upon horror was forced upon them, the women quickly learned that sticking together was their only means of survival.
Auschwitz — and by extension Birkenau — was an extermination camp whose sole purpose was to “process” over 4,000 people per day. The majority of people were taken straight from the trains to the gas chambers, while the people who were deemed the strongest were sent to be worked to death. Although all of the French women were sent to the camp to work, more than half had died within the first two and a half months. Those who weren’t beaten or worked to death, or mauled by the guards’ dogs, succumbed to the typhus and dysentery that swept the camps. Still more died from the harsh winters; roll calls started at four in the morning and lasted several hours, and women were made to stand in those freezing temperatures in their thin clothing and inadequate shoes. As their numbers dwindled, the remaining survivors clung to each other and took care of one another, especially when one of them fell ill.
It was hard to wrap my head around all of the cruelties that the women experienced. It was unfathomable for the women as well; when they were told they were going to Auschwitz, the name meant nothing to them, as the public knew almost nothing about what went on in those camps. They arrived when Auschwitz was just getting to it’s most “productive” period, but had no idea about the unsanitary conditions of the camp or the cruelties meted out by the guards. When they arrived and were forced to walk around a dead body, they were shocked.
Moorehead conducted interviews with the survivors as part of her research, so reading some of their comments about those experiences with intense. By their own admission, even though they were labeled the most dangerous in the camp (as political prisoners), they still had it somewhat easier than the Jews, Gypsies, and homosexuals who were brought to Auschwitz (again something that’s hard to wrap one’s head around, as the conditions they described are almost unfathomable). As Moorehead states a few times in the book, the incredible thing isn’t that so many women perished, it’s that so many women lived. Ultimately, 49 of the 230 women would be liberated.
Almost all of the accounts I’ve read about the Holocaust have been about the experiences the Jews faced, so it was eye-opening to read about the experiences of some of the other groups who were also sent to concentration and extermination camps by the Nazis. Having read Elie Wiesel’s Night, I already knew about what happened to a lot of the children and infants in concentration camps (that “scene” from Night will forever be seared in my memory), but there’s really nothing that can prepare you for learning about more of the techniques used to “exterminate” the Gypsy babies, which the French women bore witness to.
And bear witness they did: as the end of the war drew near, several of the women committed every detail of the horrors to memory, while others wrote down exact dates and details on pieces of paper they kept carefully hidden. Some of the survivors would be too traumatized to recount their experiences, but a few of them were determined to speak out about all of the crimes they had witnessed and would go on to write memoirs or testify before military tribunals such as Nuremburg. They were determined to seek justice.
My one complaint about the book is the first third: Moorehead attempts to tell the stories of many of the women who were arrested. It’s interesting, but it’s overwhelming trying to keep track of so many people; luckily, she includes a list the women in the back of the book, along with short descriptions. Still, I’m glad I read this book, because I learned so much about an aspect of French women’s history that I’d previously known nothing about.
A Train in Winter: An Extraordinary Story of Women, Friendship, and Resistance in Occupied France was released on November 8, 2011 by Harper Books, an imprint of HarperCollins.
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