Riding Into a Nightmare

'A Train in Winter'

by Diane Leach

22 January 2012


In Service of Survival

In January 1943 the women were awakened before daybreak and put on trains. They were not told where they were going. The train took them to Auschwitz, specifically Birkenau, the women’s camp. 

“Here, in January 1943 were living some 15,000 women ...in conditions worse than those in all other parts of the camp…” Moorehead writes of the lack of water, sanitation, and overcrowding, then describes “...endemic typhus (the disease that killed Anne Frank three weeks before the war ended), dysentery, tuberculosis, scabies, and impetigo…” 

Atop all this, of course, was a world gone mad with cruelty, where humans visited the worst possible behaviors upon one another. Only once does Moorehead describe a compassionate guard, who informs the women he intends suicide if he cannot escape his post. He then leads them to water, turning away politely as they are permitted to bathe. But he is the rare exception. Moorehead’s descriptions of Auschwitz—their vividness requires a second warning—defy my penning a nice line of adjectives. What the women endured erodes one’s limits of comprehension.

The older women, either unwilling or unable to tolerate their circumstances, died immediately, followed by the very young. Some had no choice; they were gassed or died after taking part of the now infamous course of 10 February1943. Forced to stand freezing temperatures for hours, the women were then required to run through a line of guards to reach their barracks. Paralyzed with cold (most wore little more than prison shifts; many did not have shoes), several were beaten, pulled away, and never returned.

By 1943, news of the camps was spreading, even into areas where the Germans imposed strict censorship. Meanwhile, several of the women were moved to a camp called Raisko, where they were put to work making latex. Conditions were better—they had beds and food. Others were sent to Ravensbrück, where conditions were poor, but as it was a work camp rather than a killing machine, it was slightly better than Auschwitz. 

As the war dragged on, the women were moved about. In each place they managed acts of subterfuge: hiding the young gypsy girls crippled by medical experimentation, deliberately disassembling machinery so it would be defective, stealing everything from sweaters to a jar of pickled pork, sheltering weaker prisoners and, whenever possible, singing the Marseillaise.

Liberation, initially joyous, brought its own problems. Despite being grossly underweight and malnourished, the women were unused to food and had difficulty eating properly. Their general health was poor.  All were plagued by nightmares. Worse, as survivors, they carried multiple burdens, not only of memory, but of the civilians, who refused to listen to them. The camps, one woman said, “...were so extreme, so incomprehensible, so unfamiliar an experience, that the women doubted they even possessed the words to describe them, even if people wanted to hear; which, as it turned out, not many did.”

There was survivor guilt, compounded by the grim duty of informing desperate family members that a wife or daughter would not be returning. In today’s terminology, all would be diagnosed with colossal cases of PTSD and prescribed rafts of drugs. It’s doubtful the drugs would have helped. 

A Train in Winter is filled with photographs of smiling young people, many final photographs taken before they went to their deaths, photos of camps, bodies tossed indiscriminately in the snow, and worst of all, a photograph of the Auschwitz guards. After pages of gaunt prisoners and unattended dead, we are treated to a mugging group of healthy, well-fed monsters in SS uniform. One man holds an accordion while the woman beside him lifts her leg in a flirtatious pose. It’s incredible to think them so gleeful, like children on a picnic, when one of the world’s greatest atrocities—in which they are active participants—is unfolding meters away.

Throughout, Moorehead makes a special point of the women’s solidarity. Repeatedly, she writes of their overcoming differences in class, locale, and political views in service of survival. Moorehead feels that as women, they were particularly inclined toward the deep relationships necessary for survival. She cites Georgette Rostaing, a talented singer who soothed her friends at night with song, and Marie-Jeanne Pennec, a countrywoman whose knowledge of edible wild foods like grasses and snails helped the communal diet. One of the women, working in an administrative office, learned which days people were to be gassed, then told the others, who promptly hid their weaker friends.

Moore’s is a compelling argument, but difficult to prove definitively. Suffice to say the deep bonds these particular women formed proved lifesaving for some. Whether or not the fact that these survivors were women, with an inherent bent toward group friendship, I leave to the reader. The truth is women are often far crueler than men, with their tongues if not their biceps. (Don’t believe me? Eavesdrop on any gym locker room. Or sit near a group of women at a bar.) Theirs was an extreme situation, bringing out both the best and worst in people. This doesn’t make Moorehead wrong, or diminish the book’s power.  Whatever one’s views on female solidarity, Le Convoi des 31000 were clearly a uniquely strong, powerful group of women with an unbreakable moral code. 

Moorehead closes the book with an appendix titled “the women”. Here, all 230 are listed, along with brief biographical sketches detailing their actions in the Resistance, their camp experiences and, for the 49 survivors, their lives afterward. Only one woman, Germaine Pirou, is described as having “a happy life”. The rest suffered from poor physical and mental health, and it cannot be said they ever truly recovered. 

Never again. I heard those words often as a child. Never again. As if two little words carried sufficient power to halt genocide. History has proven they do not. If you don’t believe me, close this review and find yourself a newspaper. And read this book, with its descriptions of humanity and courage and the price paid for these qualities.  As the new year unfolds, with all its atrocities, remember the women who rode Le Convoi des 31000.  May they be our lodestar.

(For P.B.)

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