Published by Harper Perennial on Oct. 2012
Genres: History, Non-Fiction
Source: Giveaway / Gift
In January 1943, a train carried 230 women members of the French Resistance from a prison in occupied France to the extermination camp at Auschwitz. Of this number, 49 survived to return to France more than two years later. Although this seems like a woefully small number, it is miraculous that so many of them survived the starvation, brutality, and illness of the camp. What saved so many of these women was the close friendship, intimacy, and camaraderie between them.
A Train in Winter tells the story of this group of women, from their roles in the French Resistance, to their experiences in the concentration camps, to the lives of the 49 survivors after their return to France following the liberation of the camps.
The women resisters were from every area of France, and they ranged from a 16-year-old girl who wrote “Vive les Anglaison” on the walls of her school to a 67-year-old widow who sheltered fallen Allied airmen. They had harbored resisters, wrote and copied Anti-German tracts, helped sabotage the Nazis, concealed and delivered weapons, and guided people across the demarcation line between Occupied France and the southern Free Zone. Among the 230 women were farmers, shopkeepers, teachers, secretaries, dressmakes, students, a dentist, and a midwife. Most of them met as strangers, but they grew to be the closest of intimates as they shared in each others’ suffering and tried to raise each others’ spirits.
The courage of these women in the face of danger and degradation was incredible to read about. They risked their lives to weaken the Nazi grip on France, and once captured, they kept their dignity and kept up the fight. They found ways to communicate with each other in La Sante prison, where they were held as political prisoners in Paris, conveying news from cell to cell by lying on the floor and shouting through the cracks at the bottom of their doors. When men prisoners, some of them the husbands and lovers of the women, were executed by the Germans, the women joined together in singing the Marseillaise, the French national anthem.
It was also inspiring to read about the relationships between the women prisoners, first in La Sante prison, and later in Auschwitz. Although the men kept in concentration camps felt isolated and looked out only for themselves, the women found strength in each other; alone, they all would have perished, but as a group, they kept each others’ spirits up, shared their food, and protected weaker women from “selection” for the gas chambers.
Although the women’s care for each other was inspiring, the descriptions of the conditions at Auschwitz and some of the other concentration camps were very painful to read. The accounts of starvation, savagery, back-breaking labor, attacks by dogs and rats, disease, filth, hours standing shoeless in snow and freezing slime, murdered infants, medical experiments, and every other type of horror are still shocking, no matter how many photos, documentaries, and stories I saw/read in school. It’s hard to think that people could be so cruel and that such atrocities were allowed to happen. In our information age, it’s difficult to imagine that in the spring of 1943, a year after the Nazis began gassing prisoners at Auschwitz, the Allies still didn’t know that the camp was a center for mass murder.
This book is fantastic and definitely worth reading. I feel really lame giving the same ol’ spiel about how important it is to learn about the atrocities of our past so we can prevent them from happening in the future, but IT IS SO IMPORTANT. But beyond being important, this book was heartbreaking and inspiring, and it opened up new information to me about the French Resistance and the often-overlooked bravery of the women at the center of it.