Posted by: Lisa Hill | July 18, 2020

A Train in Winter, by Caroline Moorehead

I was in two minds about posting this review.  It’s a grim subject, and maybe readers would rather hear about escapist books.  But I was in the mood to read about courage and resilience, and this book almost fell into my hands when I was re-shelving after the marathon effort to reconstruct my lost TBR file.  Reading it has certainly put our current troubles into perspective.

I heard about A Train in Winter from Marg at The Intrepid Reader, and I was lucky enough to win her giveaway at the time.  In her review, Marg said that she had been reading a lot about the experiences of people during WW2, and that this book was something different because it was about a group of women in the French Resistance who were sent to Auschwitz.  It must have been a groundbreaking book when it was first published in 2011; Moorehead has since followed it up with what is now called The Resistance Quartet, comprising A Train in Winter (2011); Village of Secrets: Defying the Nazis in Vichy France (2014);  A Bold and Dangerous Family: The Remarkable Story of an Italian Mother, Her Two Sons, and Their Fight Against Fascism (2017);  and A House in the Mountains: The Women Who Liberated Italy from Fascism (2019).

(Although the theme of the quartet is obviously the role of women in the resistance movements, I’d like to read this last one because one of our neighbours and proprietor of a local trattoria was a 15-year-old partisan in WW2 Italy, a man who transcended the brutality of his adolescence to become one of the best-loved people in our community.  I’d like to know more about the role of the Italian partisans).

Caroline Moorehead (b.1944) is the daughter of the Australian author Alan Moorehead.  On the TBR, I have Thornton McCamish’s 2016 biography of this remarkable man, Our Man Elsewhere: In Search of Alan Moorehead. Many Australian readers of my generation will have read Alan Moorehead’s Darwin and the Beagle at school, but what he is most famous for is his work as a war correspondent, described at Wikipedia as having the great virtue of widening the local story to include its global implications.  This is a skill that his daughter Caroline also shows in A Train in Winter….

She sets the scene with a preface about the small number of women who made it back home after the war and how she was able to discover their story.  Only a very few were still alive by the time she came to interview them in 2008.  Charlotte Delbo, one of the few to document her experiences, had written a play about it in the 1960s, but she had died of cancer in 1985. One of the saddest aspects of this book comes at the end, when we learn that France did not want know about what these survivors of Auschwitz had to say.  Like many Jewish survivors of the Holocaust, they had retained the will to live despite the horror, because of the need to bear witness.  But France’s determination to ‘move on’ after the war denied them a voice.

Mado, captured and deported when she was 22, was haunted by the ghosts of the women who died.

‘The life we wanted to find again, when we used to say, “if I return” was to have been large, majestic, full of colour.  Isn’t it our fault that the life we resumed proved so tasteless, shabby, trivial, thieving, that our hopes were mutilated, our best intentions destroyed? ‘ Her husband, she said, was sensitive, thoughtful, and wanted her to forget, and she did not want to hurt his feelings.  But all she could think was that to forget would be an act of betrayal.  (p.317)

Like many Jewish Holocaust survivors, they found that they could not convey the enormity of the experience, and people did not — perhaps could not — understand.

What all the women found almost hardest was how to find the words to describe what they had been through.  Having imagined telling their families exactly what it had been like, they now fell silent.  Often, as it turned out, the families did not really want to hear: the stories were too unbearable to listen to. ‘It wasn’t food we wanted,’ Cécile would say.  ‘It was talk.  But no one wanted to listen’.  When she returned to work for her former employer, a Jew who had survived the Parisian round-ups, he made it clear he wanted to hear nothing about the camps.  Strangers asked questions, then quickly changed the subject and began to recount their own hardships of the war.  At a village fête, soon after her return, Hélène Bolleau talked a little about the camps.  A farmer interrupted.  ‘It can’t be true.  If it was, you wouldn’t have survived.’  She cried for three days; then she stopped talking. (p.308)

Decades later there was someone who did want to hear.  Moorehead was able to talk with Betty Langlais aged 95, Céecile Charua aged 93, Madeleine Dissoubray aged 91, and Poupette Alizon, aged 83, because she was just a teenager when she boarded that train to unimaginable horror.  Three survivors were too frail to interview, but she met their children, some who were babes in arms at the time of their mothers’ capture and others who were old enough to know that their mothers had disappeared and for a very long time no one knew where they were.

It was not only the women who found life so hard in 1945.  Their children were confused and upset.  This applied both to those whose mothers returned and those who only had a letter or a final parting to remember them by.  Many grew up torn between a desire not to be overwhelmed by their mothers’ stories, yet at the same time needing not to forget the memories so crucial to their identities.

[…]

Some grandparents and surviving husbands found it easier not to tell children where their mothers had gone.  Jaunay and his sisters waited, day after day, for news of their mother, Germaine, who had been part of a passeur network in and around Amboise*, all of them denounced and arrested in the summer of 1942 and not one of whom returned.  Their father said nothing.  Germaine’s name was never mentioned.  The weeks, then the months, passed.  Finally Jaunay’s sister went to friends and found out the truth.  But his father refused to speak about their mother and never referred to her again.  All his life, Jaunay lived with the pale memory of a woman who had loved him, and at the age of 80 he still found it impossible to talk of her without crying.  (p.311, *The passeur network guided Jews, downed allied airmen and resisters across the demarcation line.)

The first part of the book charts the extraordinary courage, resourcefulness and initiative of French women in the Resistance.  They worked undetected for a long time because it didn’t occur to the Germans that women could be involved.  They distributed anti-Nazi leaflets, they printed subversive newspapers, they hid resisters and they escorted Jews across the demarcation line to (unoccupied) Vichy France and beyond.  They carried weapons and coded messages, and above all they conveyed the sentiment that accepting the Occupation was morally wrong.

It was when the Resistance moved into a violent phase, killing German officers and derailing trains, that the Germans intensified surveillance.  Resistance activity meant that more soldiers had to be diverted from the front to suppress it, and their initial strategy was to take and execute hostages who had nothing to do with it.   But instead of discouraging resistance, this had the effect of increasing hostility, and so they devised a policy called nacht und nebel (night and fog):

…sending enemies of the Reich into ‘night and fog beyond the frontier…totally isolated from the outside world’…[…] … these ‘disappeared’ people would have no rights and receive no letters; nothing at all would be known about them, neither their whereabouts nor whether they were even still alive.  Such uncertainty, it was argued, would serve to terrorise and deter their families and comrades from further activities.  In France, the new measure began with Schutzhaft, protective custody, which meant arbitrary arrest and detention without charge or trial; the detainee would be handed over to the Gestapo before being ‘disappeared’ in the east. (p.111)

Fatefully, they set up a methodical surveillance system and eventually rounded up 230 of these courageous women.  Without telling them anything about their destination, and consistent with their treatment of Jewish deportees, they inflicted a nightmare journey on them, to Auschwitz in Poland.  As the title of the book conveys, it was winter, and the conditions were bitter, but not as bitter as the way they were treated.  I have read a fair bit of Holocaust literature, and I am always ashamed that I find it so hard, when nothing about the experience of reading it is as ghastly as the actual experience of living it.  But Part II of A Train in Winter is very difficult to read. At one stage I poured myself a restorative brandy because I was so overwhelmed by it.

So, yes, this is a confronting book.  But like all books about the Germans in World War II, it is an important book that reminds us that even the most sophisticated and cultured people can degenerate into monsters, and that we should guard against any resurgence of their ideology.

PS, the next day: I would like to thank all the readers who have ‘liked’ this post.  I was, as I said in the first paragraph, ambivalent about posting it, and your ‘likes’ are a welcome affirmation that I made the right decision.

Author: Caroline Moorehead
Title: A Train in Winter
Publisher: Harper Perennial (Harper Collins), 2011
ISBN: 9780061650710, pbk., 374 pages (317 pages of text, the rest is Appendices, an Index and Author notes.
Source: personal library: won in a giveaway from The Intrepid Reader, thanks, Marg!

 


Responses

  1. Great review Lisa, and although this is a very difficult subject, it’s very relevant to today and you should be writing about it. I was going to say I find it shocking that people wouldn’t listen to these survivors’ stories, but then I remember Primo Levi who I don’t think ever got over the fact that he survived the camps where others didn’t, and other accounts I’ve heard of how people almost didn’t believe what had happened despite the evidence. I fear it doesn’t take much for any culture to degenerate – there are plenty of human rights outrages taking place as I write this comment.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thank you *warm smile*.
      The thing is, it’s so easy for demonising the Other to take hold. And once that is established in a society, then it’s easy to take the next step. This is what has happened, so shamefully, in Australia with its treatment of asylum seekers who come by boat.

      Liked by 3 people

  2. When I saw this post title, I was thinking. Hmmm… I think I’ve read that book! And then, oh yeah, I definitely have read this book! lol.

    I didn’t realise that the author had gone on to write three more books. I might have to go and take a look, because, yes, as nice as it is to be reading light books for escape, it doesn’t hurt to remember that worse has happened in history, and that people survived. Life will go on. It might look different. But it will go on.

    Like

    • Yes, wise words, my friend. I hope you and yours are all well (and have your masks ready for use!)

      Like

  3. I read The Women Who Liberated Fascism and it was so confronting but could not put it down. It’s almost impossible to imagine the reality of such cruelty and hatred yet in this country it is happening with the refugees who are erased from the cultural memory mostly.Caroline Moorhead is an amazing writer and will follow up this one Lisa as your review helps to honour these women of courage. And we must never forget that this is recent history.

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    • Yes, I think I’m going to have to chase these up. I’ll do a search at the library and see if I can put a reserve on them even though the libraries are closed.
      The problem with doing that is that I could end up with a dozen books all available at once!

      Like

  4. One book I read, The Chidren’s Camp of Belsen maybe, the Dutch in that case made very little effort to resettle survivors of the camps. That was the experience of Anne Frank’s father too, I think. I know the aftermath of WWII for occupied countries would have been a mess, but what were those politicians thinking.

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    • As I think I’ve mentioned before, I grew up among Holocaust survivors in East St Kilda because our street was within walking distance of what was then the most orthodox synagogue in Melbourne. In the 1960s the older ones couldn’t walk too far so they needed to be as close as possible. When I was old enough to be told what had happened, I used to look at them and wonder about what they had been through and admire their courage. But I don’t think they got much help to settle, or counselling or anything like that… it was all just hard work and determination, and I think that’s what these French women had to do too.

      Like

  5. This book sounds great, and what a powerful cover. WW2 has so many fascinating stories. I’m so sorry for what people had to endure at that time, but my, what we have learnt about humanity, the good and the bad from those times. The parents of one of my reading group friends was in the Dutch Resistance. I just can’t imagine such bravery.

    I read and reviewed a biography by this author a couple of years ago, “Dancing to the precipice: The life of Lucie De La Tour Du Pin, Eyewitness to an era”. She seems to specialise in strong European women. She has also done a biography of Freya Stark (though not the one I’ver had and reviewed.)

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    • When my library opens up again, I’m going to hunt out more of her books. As you say, it’s not just this Resistance Quartet, there are bios of all sorts of interesting people and more besides. I have in the meantime reserved the Italian one, though I’m a bit worried about what will happen if all my reserves come in at once when the libraries reopen!

      Liked by 1 person

  6. I have a copy of the Moorehead book on Darwin and the Beagle, and read it some time ago and enjoyed it immensely. This book by his daughter, and the other three titles, sound very powerful.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Is yours the illustrated edition? The one we had for school was, and I still have it, it’s gorgeous.

      Like

      • Yes, it’s the large format illustrated edition with the same cover as the one in your post. A handsome book. I reread relevant sections before a trip to Chile a few years ago to visit family of our daughter-in-law. Darwin had an unfortunate habit of hitting foxes on the head with his geological hammer in order to study their bodies back on board.

        Like

        • LOL yes, a lot of gentlemen scientists had some rather dubious methods in those days…

          Liked by 1 person

  7. I am making a note to read this book (and the others) later in the year. I’m not ready to yet, but I want to.

    Liked by 1 person

    • How do you keep track of books like this, Jennifer? I add them to a wishlist at Goodreads, or to my ‘reserved at library’ shelf, but still, they still sometimes get lost and by the time I get to them I can’t remember why I wanted to read them.

      Liked by 2 people

      • I usually put a reminder on the eMail I receive of (say) a blog post or a bookseller, if I can’t reserve it at the library straightaway. It is not infallible but it works for books I am keen to read. And yes, I sometimes forget why I wanted to read a particular book. :-)

        Liked by 1 person

  8. You can take my ‘like’ as a sign that I appreciated your review of this book.
    It is very sad that so many of the survivor’s friends and family did not have the courage to listen to their stories. Perhaps it is easier for our generation to listen because of the distance.

    Like

    • I think you might be right, Rose. I remember reading Nancy Wake’s autobiography and she was rightfully indignant about the way Australians ignored her contribution to the French Resistance.
      But thinking of my own parents, whose WW2 experience was horrific in different ways, I suspect that many people also need that distance before they can tell their stories.

      Liked by 1 person

      • Yes, needing time to think about an experience makes sense for some people too, although these days we are strongly encouraged to discuss our issues in counselling or with friends or loved ones. A massive change in society’s views.

        Like

        • I think it’s a bit of a generational thing, and maybe some cultures are more reticent than others too? My generation used to think that ‘telling all’ was rather ‘Californian’…

          Liked by 1 person

          • Telling all wasn’t the way of farmers where I’m from either! I’ve never heard that expression but it made me laugh, I can just imagine it being said in a derogatory way.

            Liked by 1 person

            • More mild bemusement, in my experience. As in ‘What were they thinking????’

              Like

  9. […] explained in the book I have read just two days ago: Caroline Moorehead’s A Train in Winter (see here) — without which I would have known nothing about it or why it was so brave of Charlot to publish […]

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  10. Like Marg, I hadn’t realised that she’s gone on to write so many other books in this vein. I’ll have to check into those because I really loved this book. It was difficult reading, yes, but I also found it tremendously engaging. (My review is here, if you’re curious: I see, now, that I was part of a tour for it.) Over the intervening years, I’ve thought back to these women’s stories many times. I hope you’ll continue posting on these stories: I’m not visiting as regularly as I would like to recently, but these are essential reads, and we all need to know our history so we can avoid repeating the worst of it.

    Like

    • It’s lovely to have you visit any time.. but I know what you mean … I seem to be swamped by reading, I suppose because most of us have more time to read and write at the moment. (This is not the case with people working from home, of course).
      I have been watching the TV series Das Book lately on SBS On Demand, and there’s a scene in that where a member of the resistance is captured and beaten up so badly that her hands are broken. When help comes in the form of a morphine syringe so that she doesn’t break and give the Gestapo the names they want, she can’t administer it herself. Seeing this so recently after reading A Train in Winter was a vivid reminder of what the resisters went through, and worse.

      Like

  11. […] Goodreads is promoting WW1 digger teddy bears and military medals to me presumably because I read A Train in Winter, while Facebook thinks I’m interested in Slow Stitching because I liked a friend’s post […]

    Like


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