Riding Into a Nightmare: 'A Train in Winter'

Caroline Moorehead's A Train In Winter, like Daniel Mendelsohn's The Lost, leaves nothing to the imagination, a decision that makes reading it simultaneously engrossing and deeply disturbing.

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.

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