Book Review: A Train in Winter by Caroline Moorehead

Posted January 21, 2013 by LeahAdmin in Reviews / 14 Comments

Book Review: A Train in Winter by Caroline Moorehead
A Train in Winter by Caroline Moorehead
Published by Harper Perennial on Oct. 2012
Pages: 374
Genres: History, Non-Fiction
Format: Paperback
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.

  • When I was younger (I don’t mean to imply that I’m super old or anything), I read a lot more books (both fiction and non-fiction) about the holocaust. It was hard to read then, but I find that as I get older, the atrocities seem to hit home all the more. Maybe youth was a bit of a buffer. With a family of my own, the tragedies take on quite a different dimension. Now, I can’t even imagine what it would have been like for those mothers and fathers– to see their children suffer.

    Anyway, what a marvelous review. 🙂

    • Haha of course not! It’s really interesting that reading about such tragedies hits you harder now that you have your own family, and it makes perfect sense. I have no idea yet what it is like to have children to care for and worry about, so I can’t really relate to some of the things I read. There were a few pairs of sisters and mothers and daughters in this group of women, and it was really touching to see their reliance on each other but so sad to read of their devastation when their loved ones died.

      Thank you!

  • Wow, this sounds like an amazing book. I will have to find this and read it one day – I have often wondered about the women in these camps, as it isn’t something I’ve read much or seen much about, through my own education and now in my teaching of others (this is partly because when I do get to teach the wars of the last century, it’s often from the Australian perspective anyway, so women aren’t omitted entirely from the syllabus but we just don’t tend to teach as much about the camps unless they’re senior students, which I rarely teach for History. Anyway I digress…).
    But you’re absolutely right – it is so important to learn about the atrocities of the past. I often find that the atrocities committed by the Nazis are always that one topic that raised the eyebrows of even my most disengaged students – one young boy was almost in tears when he realised just how bad it was, and normally he was running around being silly. He actually said “I think I’m starting to understand why we learn history now…” which was a huge moment.
    Thanks for sharing this, another book to add to my ever-growing collection (when I lift the book-buying ban I’ve placed on myself). 🙂

    • This book definitely offers a perspective I hadn’t learned about before, especially in that it looks at a specific group of women political prisoners, rather than Jewish prisoners or the general experience of those interned in the extermination camps. It was interesting to see how the group dynamics were different among women of different nationalities and how conditions differed for different types of prisoners (asocials, Jews, political prisoners, etc.).

      That must have been a great moment, getting to see your student finally understand why history is so important to learn! One of my goals this year is to start reading historical non-fiction; now that my formal education is over (for the time being, anyway), it’s up to me to educate myself. The more books I read, the more I realize I don’t know about the world!

      • Mmmm I know what you mean, I feel the same – there is just so much to know about the world, and so many stories to be discovered. There’s a lot of great historical non fiction out there, luckily (I plan on blogging more about them soon actually, as I bought a few good ones late last year that I don’t think I have blogged about yet). 🙂

        • That’s great! I’ll definitely be on the lookout for your posts. I’m not sure where I want to start my non-fiction reading, so I’d love suggestions!

  • I have heard AMAZING things about this book from everyone who has read it. It is definitely one that I need to pick up!

    • Absolutely! I learned so much from it; it’s definitely worth a read 🙂

  • I’m so glad you read this, and liked it.

    • Your and Mabel’s reviews introduced me to this book, and I’m so glad they did!

  • therelentlessreader

    I keep meaning to get my hands on a copy of this! Then I forget because my stacks (both mental and physical!) are ridiculous! Writing this one down NOW so I don’t forget! Great review!

    • Definitely get it! You’ll love it 🙂

  • This book sounds really good, too! I am going to have to see if I can get my hands on it soon!

  • World War II is one of those periods I cannot read about, it is just so sad and cruel and somehow so close to me and my history. It’s impossible.