Patrick Marnham

Suite Française

A Train in Winter: A Story of Resistance, Friendship and Survival


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In occupied France, the resistance organiser Jacques Baumel led a secretive existence from 1942 to 1944:

We lived every day with the fear of betrayal. It became our daily diet. We changed our address all the time. We stayed indoors all day. We jumped at the slightest noise outside the window. We froze every time the doorbell rang. It was in Lyons that I discovered that every house has its own music, the private music of the instruments played by each member of the household. A well-tuned ear picked out the new instruments, or the false notes or the silences that had not been written into the score. The strain drove men mad. You never get used to the fear of betrayal.

Baumel was a meticulous man who survived three terrifying years without being caught. None of the hundreds of secret meetings he organised was ever discovered. He held out until Lyons was liberated by American troops in August 1944. He then returned to civilian life, just glad to have survived.

Baumel divided resisters into three categories. There were family people, carrying on with daily life while they assisted fugitives or agents. These were usually caught after a few months. There were full-time resisters who left their wives and children to live underground. When they were caught they generally cracked under torture to protect their families. And then there were the ‘monks’ of the resistance: men, and a few women, who had abandoned all their personal ties to follow this vocation. Their only chance of an emotional life was with a passing colleague or a close contact. Baumel, who had been a right-wing medical student before he went underground, remembered that many of the ‘monks’ had been communists.

Part of his job was to encourage the others. The most exposed members of the network were the liaison agents who carried packages. They were usually women. He described one such meeting:

She arrives grey with cold, her eyes red, her fingers swollen in the cutting wind. Her husband has been deported … She is visibly afraid. She keeps on glancing at neighbouring tables. There is no food in Lyons. She can get no milk even for the children. She knows we have no news of her husband.

In A Train in Winter Caroline Moorehead tells the story of what happened to women like this after they were arrested. She has selected a single trainload of resistance prisoners who were deported in January 1943. Unusually they were sent to Auschwitz in Poland, rather than to Ravensbrück, the concentration camp for women in northern Germany.

Of the 230 women, forty-nine returned at the end of the war. All but four of the 181 women who died succumbed in the first six months, and the youngest were often the first to go. It seems that mental toughness was a more important survival tool than physical resilience. A support network was even more important. The deported women included three who were suspected by their comrades of collaboration. They were among the first to die, and in rather suspicious circumstances. Of the group, 113 members were communists, who had the closest support network of all.

Moorehead makes it clear that the French women of the Convoi des 31000 were not sent to the Auschwitz death camp, where most Jewish deportees were gassed on arrival, but were moved on to the adjoining slave-labour camp at Birkenau. This was not a great improvement since in most cases it amounted to a slow-motion death sentence. The deaths were due to typhus, brutality, starvation, execution or random murder by either the guards or their Alsatian dogs. Merely losing one’s shoes was a death sentence. The guards executed any women found without footwear, ‘women being easier to replace than shoes’.

The women were eventually transferred to Ravensbrück where, among earlier arrivals, they found 260 elderly German nuns who had spent over ten years in various concentration camps for denouncing Hitler as the Antichrist.

A Train in Winter has rightly been praised for its affecting picture of exceptional suffering and courage. The author interviewed four of the survivors and consulted the family records of many more, and she gained access to French departmental records and in particular to French police records, since in almost every case the women were arrested by their own national police force. Her detailed account of the brigades spéciales police operation that, under the leadership of Commissioner David, broke several of the resistance networks is one of the most absorbing parts of the book.

It is a great deal more impressive than her general historical introduction, which is marred by over-reliance on the self-serving and largely mythical account by the PCF (Parti Communiste Français) of its own heroic wartime activities. Some years ago Robert Gildea, in his masterly Marianne in Chains, dismantled the PCF’s continuing justification of its wartime policy of assassinating unarmed German soldiers.

There are a number of minor errors. The chateau used by the resistance on the River Cher is probably Chenonceau rather than ‘Clemenceau’, and ‘savage purge’ is not an entirely satisfactory translation of the post-Liberation épuration sauvage, since it misses the meaning of ‘unregulated, extra-legal or chaotic’. I found the appendix, which contains the biographical details of each of the women, the most moving part of the book. It is an exceptional achievement on the author’s part to have reconstructed these obscure lives that so often ended in sordid misery and to have restored their dignity and honour.

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