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A Train in Winter,’ by Caroline Moorehead

Post Date: March 19, 2014 by josiemounsey

Another book about death camps?  Extermination?  Do I really want to go there again?  These are the questions I asked myself.  Caroline Moorehead’s sensitively-written biography of the 230 heroines who were herded into four cattle trucks on Convoi des 3100, in Compiegne, France, in January 1943, is much more than that.  It is a testament to the power of friendship – the type of inclusive friendship women know best.


The horror is there; more chilling than anything I have read (and this from a writer who researches the murky world of human trafficking).  But, as Moorehead shows, the women rose above the horror, looked out for each other, and watched each other’s backs in more ways than one.  How some managed to look on the bright side is amazing, but to have the strength of character and determination to somehow infuse their fellow prisoners with feelings of hope and the will to continue as, starving and cold they walked two hours each way to work in the marshes, often returning carrying the added burden of the corpses of friends, is way beyond anything I could envisage.


The women, all members of the French Resistance during the German occupation, were deported first to Berkenau, the women’s camp at Auschwitz, where 15,000 women lived in appalling conditions.  Although ranging in age from schoolgirls to grandmothers and from diverse backgrounds and professions, they bonded together as they faced the brutality of the Nazis, and lived with the constant threat of torture and execution.  When guards came looking for extermination candidates, the women hid members who were sick.  Herded out of the barracks before dawn and forced to stand for hours in their prison-issue rags, while guards shouted, shoved, and dealt out blows, and dogs snapped and snarled, the women helped those that looked in danger of collapsing.  One fatal day in February 1943, it was dusk before the order was given to move inside.  Skirting around bodies that had fallen, somehow managing to mobilise their limbs, they ran the gauntlet of two rows of SS guards each holding a truncheon, whip or belt.  On that day, one thousand women died in the camp.  Rats, the size of cats, dug around the frozen corpses.


After two-and-a-half months, only eighty of the members of the Convoi des 3100 were still alive, the remaining 150 souls having succumbed to typhus, pneumonia, dysentery, dog bites, beatings, gangrenous frostbite … or from being gassed.  Still, a sense of solidarity and selflessness prevailed, with no one left alone or defenceless.


Those who were left, were moved first to the squalid camp at Ravensbruck and then, with the Allies advancing, to Mauthausen.  They became even more determined to survive the war and bear witness to the atrocities.


For the forty-nine women who came home, their passage from darkness into light wasn’t the joyous experience of which they had dreamt.  A sense of alienation, loss and loneliness, pervaded.  How could they hope anyone would understand what they had been through?  They were plagued by feelings of guilt that they had survived when so many had not.  This is summed up in the words of Madeleine Doiret:  “Looking at me, one would think that I’m alive … I’m not alive.  I died in Auschwitz, but no one knows it.”


Moorehead’s well-written narrative, whilst not shirking from the horror, left me with a profound sense of awe that in such brutal conditions, the women put aside their own needs for the greater good of their friends.  Their courage leads me to question whether, in similar circumstances, I would find the moral strength and courage to act as they did.  As part of the title of the book suggests, it is “An extraordinary story of women, friendship and survival …”.  It is also a fitting and long-overdue tribute to these brave and loyal women – those who survived and those who did not.

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