Survival Instincts

In ‘A Train in Winter,’ Caroline Moorehead explores the little-known story of French women in the Resistance, and what happened when the non-Jews were sent to Auschwitz.

11/22/2011
Staff Writer
Photo Galleria: 

In January 1942, French policemen began a special mission, in collaboration with Nazi officials, to arrest the local Resistance. On their list were dozens of women. They included Germaine Pican, a mother of two, who carried messages between communists in Paris and Rouen; Mai Politzer, a midwife, who dyed her hair black in disguise to type letters for the underground press; and Marie-Claude Vaillant-Coutrier, a photojournalist who wrote articles for a clandestine journal.

All of these women — and 227 others — were sent to Auschwitz by January of the next year. When they arrived, their heads were shaved, their bodies stripped naked, and their arms tattooed with the number 31, followed by three individualized digits. They were all in the cattle car transport called “Convoi des 31,000,” the only group out of thousands of French women resisters who were sent to a death camp. 

A total of 181 of them died within their first six months in Auschwitz — some from typhus, starvation, dysentery, others by gassing or gunshot. But the survivors, a few of them alive and in their 80s and 90s today, are what made Caroline Moorehead’s harrowing, remarkable new book “A Train in Winter” possible.

“In the end, I found six who were still alive and interviewed four of them,” said Moorehead, a prominent human rights journalist, in an interview from her home in London. “It was the only group of women during the occupation who were not Jews that were sent to death camps,” she continued. And “they were lucky because they weren’t Jewish. …They were not systematically slaughtered the way Jews were.”

Indeed, the 230 women resisters survived in part because they had received privileges denied to Jews. Ninety percent of Jews sent to Auschwitz went straight to the gas chambers. But the women from Convoy 31,000 were ordered to do slave labor at the connected Birkenau camp. Some, like Vaillant-Coutrier, were from prominent families, and once the Red Cross had begun a search for her, the S.S. guards moved her and the other convoy inmates to a special bunk. There they could send and write letters, and even receive packages. 

Yet by the time that bunk was established, nearly all of the 181 women who would not survive Auschwitz had already died. A typhus outbreak spread through the camp in April 1941, killing many of them. In fact, within 10 weeks of their arrival in Auschwitz, only 80 of the 230 women were still alive; in those 10 weeks they had died at the same rate as Jews.

“When they got to Auschwitz, they very much knew they were being treated better than Jews,” Moorehead said. “But I think seeing [how Jews were treated] made them want to survive and bear witness to what they had seen.”

In fact, one of them — Vaillant-Coutrier — did, testifying at the Nuremburg trials. And several others recounted their experience in memoirs, some published, others not; Moorehead relied heavily upon them for her research.

“A Train in Winter” is only the second book in English to deal with French women resisters; the first, “Sisters in the Resistance,” by the historian Margaret Collins Weitz, was published in 1995.

Part of the difficulty telling these women’s stories, Collins Weitz said in an interview, is that documented evidence is hard to come by. “By definition, clandestine wars don’t leave archives, so we rely almost exclusively on oral testimonies,” she said.

“My whole book was premised on the idea that the women’s role was essential to the Resistance,” Collins Weitz said, adding that in underground campaigns, women often do the necessary if unglamorous work — delivering letters, sheltering fighters and refugees, distributing pamphlets.

While Collins Weitz interviewed nearly 70 surviving resisters for her book, only a fraction of them were still alive when Moorehead began her research in 2008. Still, Moorehead interviewed the four who were healthy enough to speak. And in addition to memoirs, letters and surviving family-member interviews, she dug deep into official French archives.

Like most recently written historical accounts of the French under Nazi occupation, “A Train in Winter” hardly paints a heroic picture of France’s past. French collaboration with the Nazis — not resistance — was the far more prominent occurrence, Moorehead writes. And it was only after the Allies landed in Normandy, in June 1944, that many more Frenchmen joined in aiding the anti-German effort.

The scaled-back view of French resistance has been underway since at least the 1970s. It stems in large part from the deliberate celebration of the resistance movement immediately after the war’s end. The French needed to trump up their resistance movement to foment unity and gain political privilege, such as a prominent seat in the United Nations. “It was incredibly important symbolically and politically,” said Nathan Bracher, a scholar at Texas A&M who has written extensively about French resistance.

Moorehead was already well acquainted with the Holocaust. One of her other books, a history of the Red Cross titled “Dunant’s Dream,” detailed both the organization’s promise and failures. With regard to its failures, she wrote about the Red Cross’ decision, in October 1942, not go public about information it had obtained about Nazi death camps. “They knew a hell of a lot,” Moorehead said in the interview. But they stayed silent, she argued, because they thought Germany would win the war.

Moorehead came across the story of Convoy 31,000 about seven years ago. She was assigned to review a newly translated copy of a memoir written by one of the survivors, Charlotte Delbo, and she thought the woman would make a fascinating biography. Not long before reading Delbo’s memoir, she was even considering a biography of Primo Levi. “But so much had been written already” about him, she said.

Moorehead was not able to begin researching Delbo for some time because she was already working on two other books. One of them, “Human Cargo” (2006), was a finalist for the National Book Critics Circle Award and led Moorhead to start her own foundation to provide legal advice for present-day refugees.

When she got around to the Delbo project, she realized that there was a larger story about all the women in her group. What they embodied was not dissimilar to what she’s written about in many of her other books. As Moorehead said, she’s drawn to “gusty women who stood up for what they believed in” and “to people surviving. I’m trying to understand about courage and why some people survive, and others don’t.”

Despite the Convoy 31,000 women’s relatively improved conditions, Moorehead looked for a deeper explanation of why these women survived. Apart from being women resisters, few had collaborated together before being captured, and they actually had little in common. Some were from rural France, others from big cities; their professions ranged from doctor and midwife, to secretary, hairdresser and teacher; their ages ran between 17 and 67; some were single, others were grandparents; and though nearly half of them wee communists, others were not. Two were even Jewish.

“The Germans never found out they were Jewish, and they were held with the resisters,” Moorehead said.

So what was it? How did they survive?

“Their friendship helped them get through it,” Moorehead answered, emphasizing a major theme of her book. “They knew each other because they were held in a German prison for six months before going to Auschwitz.”

Acts of solidarity are a consistent theme she found in many of the memoirs, and in conversations with all of the women she spoke to. They held each other up through long marches in bone-chilling snow. They created a coded spoken newspaper, transmitting outside news. When they arrived in Auschwitz, Jacqueline LAST NAME, a 23-year secretary who took part in an attack on a German bookshop, began singing “La Marseillaise.” Soon, the 229 others joined in.

The other main question Moorehead explored was why these women resisted.

“To me it’s extraordinary that they would put their children at risk to join the Resistance,” she said. Out of the 230 women, they had a total of 167 children. And Moorehead found at least one story of a mother, Cecile Charua, who, after giving her child to foster parents so she could join the Resistance, was scolded by her own mother.

“How can you do this work if you have a child?” Charua’s mother asked her. “It is because I have a child that I do it,” Charua responded, in an episode repeated in Moorehead’s book. “This is not a world I wish her to grow up in.”

But Charua was also a communist. And the fact that half of the women resisters of Convoy 31,000 were communists is critical, Moorehead said, though it only explains so much. As communists, they had already been involved in political networks and were used to activism and anti-fascist work. But many resisters were motivated by a deep sense of French nationalism. The sight of Germans soldiers patrolling Paris streets, of Vichy officials censoring news, and of untold French citizens cowed in fear inspired many resisters to act.

For others, it was what they saw happening to Jews. Some 76,000 French Jews were sent to concentration camps during the Nazi occupation, and harassment and humiliation of many of France’s 300,000 Jews was a common sight. Moorehead cites one woman, Adelaide de Hautval, a psychiatrist, who spoke out against the treatment of Jews.

In April 1942, de Hautval saw a group of Nazi soldiers mistreating a Jewish family and told them to stop. “Don’t you see that they are Jews?” a soldier replied. “So what?” de Hautval answered, “they’re human beings just like you and me.” For that, she was put on Convoy 31,000 and sent to Auschwitz. 

Get The Jewish Week Newsletter

Comment Guidelines

The Jewish Week feels comments create a valuable conversation and wants to feature your thoughts on our website. To make everyone feel welcome, we won't publish comments that are profane, irrelevant, promotional or make personal attacks.

Add Your Comments

The content of this field is kept private and will not be shown publicly.
By submitting this form, you accept the Mollom privacy policy.