John Laughland

Deeply perplexing

This book is about the fate of 230 French women sent to the German concentration camps in January 1943.

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

Caroline Moorehead

Chatto & Windus, pp. 374, £

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 Ravensbrück 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. Although the role of the Communists was eventually to be decisive, the very first résistants were from the national, conservative, sometimes royalist Right and extreme Right. The Communists, by contrast, were de facto allies of the Nazis in 1940. In fact, one of the largest Resistance networks, Alliance, whose political orientation was unmistakably right-wing, was headed from 1941 onwards by a woman, the magnificent Marie-Madeleine Fourcade. It is also extremely depressing to read, in 2011, the following sentence about one of the future deportees:

(She) had been to Moscow (in the 1930s) and returned more persuaded than ever of what communism might do for French workers.

The author later recounts the fact that the very first letter one of the women wrote when Ravensbrück was liberated in 1945 was to Maurice Thorez — the General Secretary of the French Communist Party, a virulent Stalinist, and a deserter in 1939 to boot. Some of Moorehead’s heroines were in fact hard-core Stalinists who were making apologies for tyranny throughout the whole period in question, including after they had suffered from it themselves. This surely merits some comment.

A final point: it is wrong to say that Maurice Papon, the wartime Secretary-General of the Prefecture of Gironde, ‘lived until the 1990s as a free man’. Moorehead claims this as part of her general assertion that the French never faced up properly to Vichy’s crimes. In fact, Papon died in 2007 after 24 years of judicial proceedings and prison, having been convicted of crimes against humanity in 1998 for facilitating the deportation of Jews. As the only Vichy official ever to have been condemned in this way, and because his ten-year sentence was so ambiguous, his trial is hugely important — not least because he was also an active résistant who rose swiftly after the Liberation, eventually becoming Prefect of Police, i.e. in control of Paris, when De Gaulle was president. In other words, the Papon affair shows precisely that the dividing line between Vichy and the Resistance was not absolute, and that dilemmas posed by occupation and the way these issues have been dealt with in France are far more nuanced than many English-speaking authors allow.