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Monday, November 21, 2011

Review: 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 newpapers, 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 lycee; the eldest, a farmer’s wife in her sixties who harbored escaped Allied airmen. Strangers to one another, hailing from villages and cities from across France, these brave women were united in hatred and defiance of their Nazis occupiers.
Eventually, the Gestapo hunted down 230 of these women of the French Resistance and imprisoned them in a fort outside Paris. Separated from home and loved ones, these disparate individuals turned to one another, finding solace and strength in friendship; their common experience conquering divisions of age, education, profession, and class.
In January 1943, they were sent to their final destination: Auschwitz. Only forty-nine would survive. (From tour home page)
My Thoughts:
There are two parts to this book: before and after.  Part 1, the before, explains how the women met and how the Resistance movement in France began.  The early Resisters had Communist and Fascist backgrounds.  There were many small groups that initially worked independently.  The university people, printers, writers, each group had a niche.  They would write leaflets and articles about how the German occupation was wrong, how the French were starving, and how people were mistreated at the hands of the Germans.  Women were in a perfect position to distribute anti-German literature, especially as they went about their shopping, or continued to go to work at an office, etc.  No one would suspect a woman of such things.  These early women resisters felt the French were being wronged and set about organinzing resistance.  They were quite passionate.  Then laws against the Jews were enforced and still other women helped to smuggle Jews to safer territory.  
As the Resistance movement became stronger, the Germans set about spying and discovering who was involved.  The Germans were helped by the French police, and citizens who disliked or disagreed with the Communists and Fascists helped as well.  Several secret police forces in addition to the Gestapo, helped to round up these Resistance fighters and put them in French jails.  Beatings and torture for information were quite common.  The women hung in jail together managing the best they could.  Then the tide turned and the Germans decided to be rid of these female troublemakers once and for all.
"You are all condemned to die but the execution of your sentence will take a little time." (pg. 187)
Part 2, the after, begins when the French women disembark from the train that has taken them to the east, further inland in Europe.  They had no idea what awaits them as they enter Auschwitz, singing the Marseillaise, as they were wont to do when they demonstrated their solidarity and defiance.  Unfortunately they soon found out.  Their identities and dignity are  taken away by being shaved bald, medically examined, tattooed, and then dressed in dirty rags, thrown out into the cold and filth. They receive very little food or water, endure roll call for hours on end, standing in the snow, sometimes with no shoes or socks.  Fleas, lice, and disease are so rampant that it is unimaginable. It is not long before the women realize they may not make it out alive, and strive to stick together and look out for one another.  The bonds these women had formed in jail in France serve to get them through until they are eventually liberated, two years later.  The strong ones support the weak, in mind, body, and spirit.  They pool their meager resources together, if one needs something so badly to stave off death.  It is the women's determination to report the horrors they are witnessing firsthand in Auschwitz that drives some of these women to survive.  Someone has got to remember these poor souls who died and bear them witness to the world.  Someone needs to remember their names.
In a little over six months, 177 French women were dead. This left 53 women left.  In the end, only 49 of the 230 French women survived.  It's very hard to wrap your mind around, isn't it?  These women started out doing what they felt was right aiding the Resistance movement, with little or no hesitation.  They were all very strong capable women who could have looked the other way and went about their business.  But no, they stood up to the Germans, and many paid the ultimate price.  Many people have romantic notions about occupied France and the Resistance, and they are mistaken.  These people suffered badly for their beliefs.  I would like to say I would do the same.  I would stand against injustice, but I'm not so sure.  You never can be until you are in that situation.  If these women knew what awaited them, when they got caught, I still don't think they would have changed their minds or activities.  They were and are fighting for humanity. 
This book was engrossing and there were times that I wanted to put it down because the scenes are graphic and disturbing.  I felt this would be a disservice to these women and all they had been through.  The least I could do was read their story.  I learned many things about occupied France, and this book has inspired me to research more information about this time period and its events.  This book is masterfully written and I would recommend it to everyone, especially young people.  History repeats itself, so it must never be forgotten.
My Rating: 100/100 (These women have made an indelible impression upon me.)
Publisher: Harper
Genre: Non-Fiction, WWII
Hardcover 384 pages
Book source: TLC Book Tours
Thank you to TLC Book Tours for another enlightening reading experience.  Here is a list of the other tour stops:
 Tuesday, November 8th: Unabridged Chick
Wednesday, November 9th: A Bookish Libraria
Friday, November 11th: Elle Lit.
Monday, November 14th: Diary of an Eccentric
Tuesday, November 15th: Take Me Away
Wednesday, November 16th: Among Stories
Wednesday, November  16th: Melody & Words
Thursday, November 17th: Broken Teepee
Monday, November 21st: Jenny Loves to read
Tuesday, November 22nd: Picky Girl
Wednesday, November 23rd: Books Like Breathing
Monday, November 28th: Reviews by Lola
Tuesday, November 29th: Buried in Print
Wednesday, November 30th: Savvy Verse & Wit
Thursday, December 1st: In the Next Room
Friday, December 2nd: Wordsmithonia
Friday, December 2nd: Books and Movies