book response: A Train in Winter by Caroline Moorehead (2011)

Caroline Moorehead in A Train in Winter:An Extraordinary story of women, friendship, and resistance in occupied France paints a devastating portrait of lives who were shoved into the Nazi meat grinder leaving only a few alive. A few survived, but were broken by their own citizens who collaborated with the occupiers and by the SS in the death camps in Poland.

The initial organized resistance came from the French communists, who were influential  in the trade unions as well as assisting the Spanish resisters of Franco. Their organization was in place when Hitler's armies rolled in and Petain capitulated. They went right to work publishing underground broadsides and essays as well as defacing Nazi posters. Eventually they moved into violent resistance. However, the French police were active in tailing and bringing down the resistance. They were able to make mass arrests. The arrests ended in execution for many by the SS.

In the face of such utter waste of French blood, with the assistance of French magistrates, the temptation to despair was great, but more resisters were inspired. This quote, by a new resistance editor inspired me.
And I know that there are those who say: 'they died for precious little,...To such people, one must reply: "it's that they were on the side of life."' (p.119)
This French passion for life sustained so many of them beyond what I can imagine enduring. As executions continued in the French prison, leaving more and more widows in the jails the helplessness must have been overwhelming.
Many years later, one of the women described her last moments with her husband. 'When I was called that morning, something in me stopped, and nothing can set it off again, like the watch that stops when the wearer stops living.' But though she wanted to die, she chose to live, to defy the Germans, and not to yield to anyone. 'I had to hold fast to the end, and die of living.' (p.166)
It's obvious that Caroline Moorehead knows how to find the quotes that grab the heart.  Moorehead portrays in the lives of these women that even the smallest flame is extremely bright in the deepest darkness. When the women were moved to Birkenau, to be worked to death, instead of sent to its gas chambers, a slower death instead of the quick one, they banded together even more than in the Paris prison, where their husbands and brothers and fathers were killed. They learned to steal and share and physically support each other, so they could survive until the end of the war. Their experience confirms the assertion of John Chrysostom, the great preacher of the early church, "Nothing so makes friends and rivets them so firmly as affliction." If war can make a band of brothers among soldiers, it just as well can form a band of sisters, and this story demonstrates that. The horrors they saw in Birkenau devastated those who survived, and just like so many soldiers who witness the gore of war, they also suffered from nightmares for the rest of their lives, likely untreated PTSD. One of many examples is the slaughter of children.
One night, Marie-Claire heard terrible cries; next morning she learnt that because the gas chambers had run out of Zyklon B pellets, the smaller children had been thrown directly on to the flames. 'When we tell people,' she said to the others, 'who will belive us?' (p.241) 
One survivor was able to testify at the Nuremburg trials, to bear witness to the atrocities committed in the camps. Tragically, after the war, their experience at the hands of French collaborators did not fit the political needs of de Gaulle, who wanted a myth of a majority of resisters. So their stories were hidden. They didn't get their validation by their fellow citizens for decades. They lived haunted lives. Their neighbors were not riveted to them by affliction. They terribly missed their sisters who succumbed to the Nazi camp system. Their fellowship was with ghosts and memories. Their were no groups like the Veterans of Foreign Wars to which they could belong and process their stories over and over. The book ends on a brutally sad note.
So she decided not to talk any more about Aushwitz. 'Looking at me, one would think that I'm alive...I'm not alive. I died in Auschwitz, but no one knows it.' (p. 317) 
The extremeness of the their trials made the membership in their fellowship so small and desparately lonely. I'm glad their story has been publicized for the English reader by Moorehead. In response, I can only pray for the peace of their souls.

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