I haven’t written a book review for a while. I’ve been reading and have read 10 or so books in the last month, but none of them were ones that I wanted to write about. I read several mystery novels, one very predictable “thriller,” and a couple of biographies. I thought I might review the John Wesley biography I read, but it turns out the book wasn’t nearly as interesting as John Wesley really was, so I couldn’t recommend it. So I’m back with a review of a book that is truly thought provoking: A Train in Winter by Caroline Moorehead.
A Train in Winter is subtitled “An extraordinary story of women, friendship, and resistance in occupied France” and it is exactly that. Caroline Moorehead tells the carefully researched story of 230 French women who stood up against the Nazi’s and the collaborating French government during the time when France was occupied by Germany during World War II. I’ve watched dozens of WWII movies and read lots of books about the Holocaust, but this is the first one I’ve read that details how women were at the front line of the Resistance in France. The women were mothers, teenagers, single and married, teachers, housewives, business women. All of them decided they had to take a stand, for various reasons, against Fascism and the puppet French leaders.
The story starts with rapid invasion of France by Germany. The invasion took about a month in 1940 and resulted in Germany setting up a French “government” in Vichy. This government cooperated with the Germans and allowed the Gestapo to set up special French brigades of police officers that persecuted any resistance and rounded up “undesirables” such as Jews, Seventh Day Adventists, homosexuals, and resistors. In response to these actions, the women described in A Train in Winter worked for the resistance by passing out flyers, organizing printing presses, writing for publications that opposed Fascism, helping Jews escape France, or just being kind to people who were being abused by the Nazis. The first half of the book describes their work with the Resistance.
The second half of the book talks about their arrests, their imprisonment in France, and finally their deportation to Auschwitz. None of them were given the benefit of a trial before their deportation. Many of them were tortured. Some of them didn’t even know why they were arrested. Some were arrested because a family member worked for Resistance. Many of them had husbands or family members who were shot by the Nazis, but the women’s fate was different. They were sent to the Death Camp of Auschwitz, specifically the satellite camp at Birkenau. During the time at Birkenau they were beaten, starved, worked to death, and set upon by attack dogs. The 230 women deported from France worked to support and help each other and those who survived felt they did so because they stood together.
Of the 230 French women who spent more than two years at Birkenau, only 49 survived to the end of the war. When they came home, they had to tell family and friends about atrocities that others did not want to hear or believe. The women suffered from chronic health issues and had a hard time relating to the children, husbands, and parents they had left behind. Some of the women returned to find that their entire family had been killed. The book describes the devastation of the war, especially the horror of the concentration camps.
A Train in Winter is not an easy book to read, but it raises important questions. How can “civilized” people behave in such abominable ways toward other people? What can we do to be sure that nothing like this ever happens again? How can you stand against evil in such a way that your life matters? How would I respond if such a government took over our country? Would I be willing to risk my life or would I try to ignore what was going on around me in order to survive? We never know the answer to these questions until we are faced with the situation, but the women in this book responded with a courage that cost many of them their lives.