December 2011

Friendship and survival in occupied France

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With the Arab Spring occupying much of the media lately, resistance and liberation are not far from anyone’s mind these days. Caroline Moorehead looks at the topic from a new angle in A Train in Winter, which tells the story of 231 women of the French Resistance imprisoned during the German invasion of World War II. Moorehead weaves a historically accurate narrative of women banding together for survival in the face of death and deprivation.

The women’s story begins at the start of the German invasion, with teachers, students, chemists and writers printing anti-Nazi newspapers, transporting weapons, helping Jews to safety and relaying messages of the resistance. They were young and old, from cities and villages, and all determined to save their France. This defiance led to their eventual capture by the Gestapo, bringing them together first in a fort-turned-prison outside Paris and later, in the end, at Auschwitz in 1943.

With cooperation and resourcefulness, these women kept themselves educated, informed and safe, often hiding the sickest among them and putting on plays to maintain hope, as well as to remember who they were and were determined to be again. As many of the women died or heard of relatives and friends who died, their bond strengthened. “We didn’t stop to ask ourselves whom we liked and whom we didn’t,” one woman later explained. “It wasn’t so much friendship as solidarity. We just made certain we didn’t leave anyone alone.” This solidarity is what kept some alive and made sure that this story of terror, starvation and death was told.

By using original sources and giving each woman a name, the book can occasionally make the mind spin. However, the knowledge that these were real women makes the atrocities all the more real and their identities essential. The personal interviews and archival research are woven seamlessly into the narrative, making this war chronicle unforgettable. An appendix gives the names and stories of life and death of all 231 women.

Unforgettable and riveting, A Train in Winter is not an easy read. It is, however, an essential read for those who believe—or long to believe—in the power of friendship.

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