Riding Into a Nightmare: ‘A Train in Winter’

[22 January 2012]

By Diane Leach

In 2008, biographer Caroline Moorehead set out to find any surviving members of a group known as Le Convoi des 31000, 230 women who had actively participated in the French Resistance during World War II, only to be caught and transported to Auschwitz. She learned seven were still alive.

Some were too ill to meet with her, but the others were amazingly forthcoming. Betty Langlois, known to the French police as ‘Ongles Rouges’ for her elegant fingernails, was 95 when she spoke with Moorehead. Langlois directed Moorehead to Cécile Charua, known in her youth as ‘le Cygne d’Enghein’. Amused by Moorehead’s formal French, the 93-year old Charua taught Moorehead some indecorous slang. She also sent Moorehead to 91-year old Madeleine Dissoubray. One woman led to another; when Moorehead located Poupette Alizon, whose beloved sister Marie perished in the camps, she found an embittered woman estranged from her family. 

Moorehead also interviewed sons and daughters, nieces and nephews, all now elderly themselves. Many of these adults were separated from their mothers for the entirety of the war, sent to live with family or board in the comparatively safer French countryside. Children of mothers who survived internment describe remote, silent women, plagued by physical and psychological woes. One man, at 80, was unable to speak of his mother without sobbing.

Le Convoi des 31000 was a unique transport in that it carried only women, primarily war resisters rather than Jews. The group itself was unusual in their intense bonding, which they recognized as crucial to their survival. Once caught, these women pooled their meager rations, actively protected the weaker members of the group and incredibly, continued to resist the Nazis from the streets of Paris to La Santé Prison to the camps, even as their living situations deteriorated into some of the most brutal ever known. Of the 230, only 49 survived. 

Naturally, Moorehead cannot describe all of these women, choosing instead to focus on some key figures, fleshing out their biographies. There is midwife Maï Politzer, dentist Danielle Casanova, schoolgirls Poupette and Marie Alizon, Betty Langlois, the teenaged Simone Sampaix, Madeleine Dissoubray, and several others. The women ranged from professionals to housewives to students, and though the Resistance began in Paris, it eventually encompassed the entire country. Women played a crucial role, writing, printing, and distributing clandestine newspapers, anti-German tracts, and expertly created false identification papers. They sheltered those fleeing the Germans, Jews and non-Jews alike; some acted as passeurs, ferrying people to safety. 

Moorehead’s book provides a comprehensive examination of the German invasion, ensuing occupation, and the response among resisters, many of whom were Communist. Not all French chose to resist: some took an attitude Moorehead terms attentisme, a sort of quiet, watchful waiting. The French were a people accustomed to surviving invading armies, and the initial moments of the invasion were relatively peaceful. Germany’s true intentions were slow to unfold.

The first half of the book carefully explaining the various Resistance groups and their complex interrelationships. This serves the reader well, for those of us unfamiliar with the finer points of the French Resistance learn a great deal while becoming attached to the individuals described, making it all the more devastating when they perish.

There is no escaping the fact that many French, including some Resisters, stood by as more and more Jews were deported. Yet others took great risks to protect their friends: France Bloch and Marie-Elisa Nordmann were both Jewish scientists who built bombs for the Resistance. Once in the camps, the other women refused to denounce them. Dr. Adeläide Hautval was arrested after chiding a German soldier for mistreating a Jewish family. She was drafted into work as a camp doctor, at times forced to participate in Josef Mengele’s medical experiments. She finally refused the work, at risk to her life, instead sneaking stolen medicine and care to the sickest individuals. 

Those familiar with Irène Némirovsky’s devastating Suite Française will find sickening echoes in A Train in Winter. The Germans rapidly make daily life impossible, imposing rules, regulations, censorship, curfews, rationing, and finally, the wearing of yellow stars. The circumstances the women endure, even before their imprisonment, are harrowing. There is no coal, no food, no tobacco (one must recall that smoking was widespread at the time) no leather—the Germans looted everything. During the brutally cold winter of 1940, the French, starving and frozen, watched train after train head for Germany, laden with French foodstuffs and other goods. Mothers of small children hoped for late walkers, as shoes were impossible to procure.

As the Resistance moved from printed opposition to violence (this decided on at the infamous La Closerie des Lilas cafe), the Germans replied in kind. Arrests and torture became the norm, followed by executions: Communists, intellectuals (including Simone Sampaix’s father), Jews, people in the wrong place at the wrong time. Max Feld was permitted to write his sister a note moments before being shot, at age 17. He asked that she break the news to their mother gently. 

Moorehead, like Daniel Mendelsohn in The Lost, leaves nothing to the imagination, a decision that makes reading Train simultaneously engrossing and deeply disturbing. Beware, fair reader: A Train in Winter will cause nightmares. Sixty years on, the cruelties of the Reich still astonish and sicken.

In 1942, the French police, under pressure from the Gestapo, began arresting large numbers of resisters, who were sent to the Romainville Prison. Also known as La Santé, it still stands, quite literally a stone fortress with high, thick walls and slits for windows. The conditions at La Santé were grim. The women survived by pooling not only their food but their talents, putting on plays, teaching classes, sewing. But La Santé was a cruel place, specializing in solitary confinement, often meaning complete darkness and little food. It was also a killing grounds, where many of the women became widows. 

La Santé still stands. When my husband and I visited Paris recently, we stood outside the prison, our hands touching the dark, ancient stone. We read the list of names posted on the wall, all Resistance members, shot by the Germans. We also visited the Montparnasse Cemetery, intending to pay our respects to Simone de Beavoir. 

We got lost, and wandered into the Jewish section, where I encountered a headstone with four names. This family, aged two to 32, died during deportation to Drancy. I stood there, a pampered American Jew with a fancy camera and expensive shoes, and sobbed openly.  It’s one thing to have grown up, as I did, in a suburb of Detroit that attracted Eastern European Jews, many of whom were camp survivors.  There were Glatt (clean) Kosher markets, bakeries specializing in challah and Jewish delicacies like rugelach and seven-layer cake, stores that sold menorahs and kiddush cups.  It was possible to negotiate this society without a word of English, assuming you knew Yiddish, Russian, or Hungarian.  In these places it was normal to see inner forearms tattoed with blue numbers; we all knew people who woke screaming in the night.

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.)

Published at: http://www.popmatters.com/pm/column/153451-riding-into-a-nightmare-a-train-in-winter/