Magazine article The Spectator

Deeply Perplexing

Magazine article The Spectator

Deeply Perplexing

Article excerpt

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

by Caroline Moorehead

Chatto & Windus, £20, pp. 374,

ISBN 9780701182816

This book is about the fate of 230 French women sent to the German concentration camps in January 1943. Arrested as members of the Resistance, they first went to Auschwitz before being transferred to Ravensbruck and Mauthausen as the Allies advanced. In Auschwitz they witnessed some of the most terrible scenes in human history. Only 49 returned to France.

The book's whimsical but ultimately uninformative title belies a book which contains a wealth of historical information as well as some brilliant if horrific storytelling. The first 150 pages deal with the women's Resistance activities - attending secret meetings, arranging safe passage to the free zone, running clandestine printing presses.

The second part is about their experiences in the camps. As any account of life in Auschwitz inevitably must, it contains stories which are so profoundly disgusting that it is very difficult to read them at all. Much of Moorehead's text is appallingly effective.

The author's goal is presumably to bring alive large subjects, the Resistance and the Holocaust, by telling the story of a small part of them. Yet the emphasis on the friendship and mutual support the women offered each other seems unnecessary: it is quite normal for people, and not just women, to pull together when they are daily faced with death in wartime. In any case, some of the ways the women dealt with life in the camps sound superficial - one of them said her goal was 'to keep alive, to remain me'. Others are deeply perplexing: in the autumn of 1943, the women staged Le malade imaginaire and one later wrote, It was magnificent, because, while the smokestacks never stopped belching their smoke of human flesh, for two whole hours we believed in what we were doing.

Is self-belief through play-acting really the right response to mass murder? Perhaps one should not be judgmental about people who have, in Tzvetan Todorov's phrase, 'faced the extreme' - Moorehead is not. But one feels that the book is driven more by the human interest of the story than by the historical judgment which is essential when dealing with such issues. Certainly, the choice of subject leads to some misrepresentations and errors, for instance the impression given that the Resistance was first and foremost a Communist affair. …

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