Reading for Understanding not Pleasure

The cover to Caroline Moorehead’s book A Train in Winter is bleak, bleak, bleak but the book, if you can believe it, is yet bleaker. My problem with the cover is that it shows folks in a 1940s-esque rail station patiently waiting, we assume, to board. The book chronicles the lives and internment of women involved in the French resistance during WWII. In reality these women would have been driven into a cattle car with no room to lie down and literally just a pot to piss in. Hardly the romantic scene portrayed on the cover.

I admit most of what I know of the French resistance I learned by watching Casablanca. That and growing up during DeGaulle’s regime I probably picked up his myth of the majority of Frenchmen being part of the noble covert battle agains their Nazi occupiers. Moorehead dispels any such notion. The women described here were involved from the early years of the occupation doing everything from the mundane such as distributing anti-Nazi posters and literature to the seriously dangerous like building bombs in the science labs where they worked.  Many were Communist Party members, popular in France during the 1930s reacting against Fascism. But many were simply reacting against the brutality of German authoritarianism.

Collaboration had varying degrees of involvement as the current controversy around Coco Channel shows. I was amazed though at the energy, described within this book, with which many of the French threw themselves into turning against their fellow citizens. The resistance picked up speed as the war went forward but in the early years it was hard to tell which way the wind blew and many placed their bets on the Nazis not on their own country men. Moorehead describes this in minute but very readable detail in the first part of the book. These stories humanize the women who were risking everything: family, home, job and equally demonizes their fellow French informers, police and the “Free” French Vichy government.

The second part of the book chronicles their experience in various internment and concentration camps to which they are shuttled for twenty nine months until the end of the war. There is nothing new in these descriptions of man’s cruelty toward their fellow man. But it is difficult to pick up the book to be immersed in such deprivation again and again.  The real story is the women’s continual kindness toward each other. There are  women of every socio-economic background leading, nursing, protecting each other through the most horrific circumstances. And it is not hard to believe that the smallest acknowledgement of each others humanity made the difference often between succumbing or surviving.

In the end though it is clear that these ministrations could only serve as balm. Of the the 230 women sent into depravity only 49 would live to return to their country. The final part of the book tells the story of their return to a life few could recognize. Many of their husbands had died at the hands of the Nazis. Their young children left in the care of family or fosters no longer knew their mothers, a reality that must have been extremely painful. In an appendix Moorehead gives one or two lines to what she could learn of their remaining lives. These spare descriptions give truth to the fact that few ever found happiness. Their lives ruined by health and mental illness remnants of their brutal experience. I am haunted by the final lines of the book in which one survivor states “Looking at me, one would think that I’m alive. I died in Auschwitz, but no one knows it.”

It is difficult to experience this book (hence, my post title) but it is not hard to read. The author’s style is clear and she leads you through in a complex story in a very conversational way. Sometimes we don’t read for pleasure but for knowledge and it is well worth knowing these women’s story.

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