I wrote this last week, before the horrific, devastating events in Paris. Having read this book now feels even more timely. I know that Parisians won’t let the senseless, cowardly attacks define them. The citizens of Paris, of France will always overcome. Vive la France!
I put off reading Caroline Moorehead’s A Train in Winter: An Extraordinary Story of Women, Friendship and Survival in World War Two* for a really long time.
I’ve owned a copy for well over a year and I put it on my 2015 TBR Pile Challenge list at the end of 2014. And still, I put off reading it ALL YEAR.
Why did I put off reading such an extraordinary and important book forever? I was scared. I was scared that it would make me sad, that it would be difficult to read, that I would cry.
I finally decided that Remembrance Day was the perfect day to spend with this book. It really, really was.
Moorehead packs a lot into 317 pages. The story of these women, mostly Communists in France, working at the beginnings of what would come to be known as the French Resistance, involves 230 individuals. Moorehead doesn’t tell all of their stories, but she tries. She tells us of the work they and their husbands, and sometimes their children, did to try and make life difficult for the occupying Nazis. They distributed pamphlets and flyers, plastered posters all over the city urging the French to resist against the enemy; they gathered information and weapons and moved them around the country to where they would be most useful; they helped Jews and other “undesirables” cross from the occupied territory into the demarcation zone, so that they might have a chance at leaving France; and eventually some of them were part of murdering Nazis, for which they would have to pay.
You learn about who these women were before the war, why it was important to them to fight for France. And when they found themselves imprisoned, the result of some very tenacious collaborative French police officers, they somehow found a way to keep going, to hold each other up even when some of them knew that their husbands were being shot just outside.
For a while I thought it wasn’t going to be so bad – the women were in French prisons but they had figured out a way to live together: they shared their food, put on plays that they could remember, sewed costumes and clothes for each other and wrote letters home. I thought maybe the train in the title was a metaphor for the fear that they all felt, all the time.
But no. Auschwitz beckoned. And everything you’ve read about it…it’s worse in this book. It’s not like I’ve never read about concentration camps – I have. There was just something about this book, though, that made it so much worse. Typhus, diphtheria, attack dogs, sadistic guards (there’s one horrifying photo of the guards at Auschwitz – I thought it was a vacation photo, these young men and women were SO happy and smiling and laughing), heinous living conditions, dying children, disgusting experiments conducted on inmates, filth, horrific punishments – all humanity stripped away.
There were 230 women that went on the train and only 49 of them walked back out two years later.
If you take a quick scan through the Goodreads ratings, a lot of people rate this book quite low. The big complaint seems to be that Moorehead talks about 230 women and it’s a lot of people to keep track of. I didn’t feel that way. I thought she did an admirable job of telling the stories of these women, these extraordinarily brave wonderful women who managed to look after each other and share what little they had so that they might live together to see another day.
I am a wuss. Because, yes, reading it was difficult and unpleasant and shocking and sad. But the experience of these women was all that and so much worse. The least I could do is read about it so that when these incredible women are no longer with us, we will still know their story.
If you haven’t already, please read this book.
*Please note: the title may be slightly different in your neck of the woods. It’s also titled A Train in Winter: An Extraordinary Story of Women, Friendship and Resistance in Occupied France. I think the “…survival in world war two” version is more apt.