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Two and a half months after reaching Birkenau, the French women were down to eighty.  A hundred and fifty of them had died, from typhus, pneumonia, dysentery, from dog bites and beatings and gangrenous frostbite, from not being able to eat or sleep, or from being gassed.  In the filth and cold and danger of Birkenau, almost anything was fatal.  The ones still alive were the stronger women, those neither too old nor too young, those sustained by belief in a new world order; or, quite simply, because they had been lucky.  Without the help of the others, they knew that many more of them would already be dead.  One Sunday, when the sky was blue and the women were allowed to rest, Charlotte remembered other spring Sundays, walking by the Seine under the chestnut trees.  ‘None of us,’ she thought, ‘none of us will return.’

(from A Train in Winter, page 218 in the ARC; finished version may be different)

A Train in Winter: An Extraordinary Story of Women, Friendship, and Resistance in Occupied France is biographer Caroline Moorehead’s attempt to piece together the stories of the 230 women of the French Resistance who were arrested by the Gestapo and the French police during the country’s occupation by the Nazis during World War II.  These women were transported to Birkenau, part of the Auschwitz extermination camp in Poland, in January 1943, and only 49 would come out alive.  When Moorehead began researching and writing this book, seven of the women were still alive, and she talked to those whose health allowed it.  She also tracked down relatives of some of the women who perished in the camp to tell their stories as well.

These women joined the Resistance for different reasons.  Some did not like how the Germans were shipping France’s raw materials back home, leaving them hungry and cold.  Others protested the treatment of the Jews, whether French citizens or refugees, or the Nazi crackdown on intellectuals.  Some simply did not want to see their country defeated.  They came from different backgrounds; some were students and farmers, one was a dentist.  Some were married and saw their husbands beaten and executed by the Germans, and some were mothers forced to send their children to live with their parents or foster families so they could carry on with their Resistance work.  Some helped Jews and others escape into the Free Zone, helped Allied airmen, or hid other resisters.  Others printed or distributed anti-Fascist tracts, were members of the Communist Party, or helped derail trains, while some were wrongly accused of Resistance activities.  Regardless of their differences, they were joined in their hatred of the Germans, their desire to free France from the Nazis, and later, to survive the torture and inhumane conditions of prison and the extermination camp.

A Train in Winter is a very detailed account of the French Resistance from the moment the Nazis marched into Paris in June 1940 and how the French police collaborated with their occupiers to the horrors these women endured in Birkenau and beyond.  Moorehead obviously performed much research, but the way the information is presented, especially at the beginning, is a bit dry.  She states facts so that it reads almost like a textbook, and so many names are mentioned that it’s hard to keep track of them all.  In some cases, there are no transitions from one paragraph to the next, so it seems like you’re abruptly leaving one person’s story and moving to another.  A lot of French words are included in the text without translation, and that sometimes made it difficult to fully grasp the matter being discussed.  Moreover, the beginning focuses on the Occupation itself and how it affected the Communist Party and created pockets of resistance, and I found that these parts dragged because I wanted to read about the women and their involvement in the Resistance.

Still, Moorehead successfully shows how these women were courageous and strong — not only for standing up to the Nazis but for not bowing to the pressure for women to have a family at a time when the government blamed the country’s defeat on women going to university and work and having fewer children.  Once Moorehead began introducing the women who would be followed throughout the book, I couldn’t put it down.  I found A Train in Winter fascinating because I hadn’t read about these women before, and they got me thinking about how I would have reacted if I had been in their shoes.  I would like to think I would have been brave enough to resist, but I can’t imagine enduring what they did in the camps.

A Train in Winter shows how ordinary people can do extraordinary things and how even in the most horrible of circumstances, people can find the strength to stand up for themselves and what they believe is right.  These woman banded together to support and care for one another even when they were sure they would not survive, and of course, many didn’t; those who did were never the same, healthwise or otherwise.  They continued to perform acts of sabotage when and where they could, sang the Marseillaise (France’s national anthem) in front of their captors, and were symbols of solidarity and patriotism even while they were starving and sick.  The book features photographs (though I wish the ARC included the captions) and a list of all 230 women and their fates.  I applaud Moorehead for seeking out the survivors to tell their stories before it was too late, and A Train in Winter is a fitting tribute to these brave women.

Thanks to TLC Book Tours for having me on the blog tour for A Train in Winter.  To follow the tour, click here.

Disclosure: I received a copy of A Train in Winter from HarperCollins for review purposes. I am an IndieBound associate and an Amazon affiliate.

© 2011 Anna Horner of Diary of an Eccentric. All Rights Reserved. Please do not reproduce or republish content without permission.

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