Thursday, November 17, 2011

A Train in Winter by Caroline Moorehead

They were teachers, students, chemists, writers, and housewives; a singer at the Paris Opera, a midwife, a dental surgeon. They distributed anti-Nazi leaflets, printed subversive newspapers, hid resisters, secreted Jews to safety, transported weapons, and conveyed clandestine messages. The youngest was a schoolgirl of fifteen who scrawled "V" for victory on the walls of her lycĂ©e; the eldest, a farmer's wife in her sixties who harbored escaped Allied airmen. Strangers to each other, hailing from villages and cities from across France, these brave women were united in hatred and defiance of their Nazi occupiers. 

Eventually, the Gestapo hunted down 230 of these women and imprisoned them in a fort outside Paris. Separated from home and loved ones, these disparate individuals turned to one another, their common experience conquering divisions of age, education, profession, and class, as they found solace and strength in their deep affection and camaraderie. 

In January 1943, they were sent to their final destination: Auschwitz. Only forty-nine would return to France. 

A Train in Winter draws on interviews with these women and their families; German, French, and Polish archives; and documents held by World War II resistance organizations to uncover a dark chapter of history that offers an inspiring portrait of ordinary people, of bravery and survival—and of the remarkable, enduring power of female friendship
A Train in Winter: An Extraordinary Story of Women, Friendship, and Resistance in Occupied FranceA Train in Winter: An Extraordinary Story of Women, Friendship, and Resistance in Occupied France by Caroline Moorehead

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

How do you write a review on a book that contrasts the absolute cruelty and sadistic imaginations with friendship and altruism? It is very difficult, indeed.

I've read many books on WWII that describe the Jewish POV and soldier POV. This time the POV is that of female political prisoners of war. This point of view hit closer to home as I am neither Jewish nor a soldier. It begs the question, if placed in a situation where not in immediate danger, what side of the line would I stand?

The first part of the book is a little difficult to slog through but important in establishing the extremes of the French people. When German tanks and troops rolled into Paris in neat little rows and friendly faces, the Parisians were wary but complacent. Under the current French government, the citizens were encouraged to cooperate. Shortly thereafter, the German agenda became apparent. The citizens suffered under their rule. While many stayed complacent, others organized themselves in a resistance. They printed, sabotaged, broke curfew, hid Jews, etc. at the high price of possibly losing everything. At the other end of the spectrum, the country also held men and women who collaborated with the Germans, particularly the French police, patiently watching suspected criminals then cracking down with the brutality to rival the German SS force.

We are introduced to many of the members of the resistance in the first half of the book. To me, it was still pretty muddled. In fact, I will go ahead and make the remark that the book is written like a school history book, including extraneous details that might offer insight but generally is too much information and not organized in a way my linear brain works. In fact, the overall writing style was a little muddled and unclear. As I was reading an advanced reader's copy with multiple typos, I can't really complain but the writing style was not one I was comfortable reading. At the same time, the subject matter is not one I would turn to for comfort. It is not easy reading but provided a different perspective that I wanted to understand.

The second half of the book is brutal. The prisoners are sent to the worst of the worst concentration camps. The begin in Auschwitz (Birkenau) then to Ravensbrook and eventually to Mathausen. In agonizing yet necessary detail, the brutalities are exposed, along with names of kapos and others that needed identification. Again, this is not a "feel good" book. It is horrifying and brutal considering that these acts were carried out by the same creatures as their victims. They are dehumanized in so many ways. And yet this horrific treatment is the catalyst for their durabond friendship. In the most hopeless of circumstances, the women cling to one another, watch each other's backs, hide each other when they are ill and then there is the occasional mention of humanity in the face of the German guards or an act of grace carried out by a hated kapo. In circumstances of war, starving hunger, plummeting temperatures, carnage and illness, it is the acts of kindness and camaraderie that make the difference between death and life.

Although part of the second section of the book, the author continues the stories of the survivors and the loneliness, emptiness and lack of depth they experience upon return. They all go their separate ways as they are reunited with family or begin a new life someplace else but they all distinctly feel the loss of the friendships that sustained them through their 19 months of horror.

What distinguishes this book from others is that the women are people who didn't have to take a stand to survive. The reader is also struck by the lengths many of the women are willing to take to help another survive. It is well worth reading.

1 comment:

Jo said...

Nice review! I checked, and our library has it ready to hit the shelf, so I'm adding it to my TBR list. :)