A Train in Winter by Caroline Moorehead

A story of resistance, friendship, and survival

One icy dawn morning in Paris in January 1943, 230 French women of the resistance were rounded up from the Gestapo detention camps and sent by train to Auschwitz.  The youngest was a 15-year-old schoolgirl, the oldest a 68-year-old farmer’s wife.  Of the 230 women, 49 lived to see the end of the war two and a half years later.

How did they survive the horrors of Auschwitz?   They were political prisoners who realised that working together would give them a better chance of survival.  They supported each other, worked together, cared for each other, sharing food and strength.

Ms Moorehead writes:

‘In 2008 I decided to go in search of the women who had left Paris, that freezing January dawn sixty-five years earlier.’

This book is both inspiring and heartbreaking.  Inspiring because of the support they gave each other, heartbreaking that so many died. Many of the women had been together in French prisons, suffering from extreme cold and chronic hunger, with a constant fear of torture or execution, before being moved to Auschwitz.  Here, their clothes were removed, their hair was shorn, numbers were tattooed on their arms.  One thousand of the female inmates died at Auschwitz when all of the inmates were marshalled into the prison yard at 3 am on 10 February 1943.  The women were required to stand (in their rags in the freezing cold, in the snow) through the night and the following day.  By the time they were ordered to return to their barracks, a thousand of the women were dead.

Writing of this, Ms Moorehead identifies the French friends by their first names as they look for each other, trying to work out who is missing. 

Before reading this book, I knew nothing about these women.  Ms Moorehead includes, as an appendix, with the names of each of the 230 women with biographical information.  Brave, courageous women who understood that they had a better chance of survival by working together.  And after the war?  Few of them were to know happiness, sadly.  Many had lost loved ones, and just how does anyone readjust to life after existing in such a hell?

‘Looking at me, one would think that I’m alive. . . . I’m not alive. I died in Auschwitz, but no one knows it.’ (Charlotte Delbo, one of the survivors)

I am grateful to Ms Moorehead for writing this book, for shedding light on the lives of these women.  This is the first book is what is now known as The Resistance Quartet:

‘A Train in Winter: An Extraordinary Story of Women, Friendship, and Resistance in Occupied France’ (2011)

‘Village of Secrets: Defying the Nazis in Vichy France’ (2014)

‘A Bold and Dangerous Family: The Remarkable Story of an Italian Mother, Her Two Sons, and Their Fight Against Fascism’ (2017)

‘A House in the Mountains: The Women Who Liberated Italy from Fascism (2019)

I intend to read each of them.

Jennifer Cameron-Smith