A Train in Winter, Caroline Moorehead

I am really irritated. I wrote this wonderful (clearly I’m biased) blog post about A Train in Winter but didn’t quite get to finish, was interrupted mid sentence and failed to save the post. And it was long and I spent quite some time really pondering what I wanted to say because this is one of those very important books that should be read by many many people. It is one of those books that lingers with you as you read it and then afterward churns in your mind, bits and pieces of the text and its weight popping like bubbles in still air. POP.

I finished reading Moorehead’s book over two weeks ago and it has taken me this time to mull over it, to weigh it like a precious stone, to try and make peace with it. I don’t think I’ve succeeded. It is too dense, too weighty, too intense – perhaps just too important – to be the kind of book that one can read and then shelve and leave in the dust of other books. This book asks to remain.

A Train in Winter tells the story of  “Forty-nine of the 230 French women, thirty-four of them communists, who had left Paris twenty nine months earlier on the Convoi des 31000, had lived to see the end of the war. A hundred and eighty one of their friends and companions had died, of typhus, brutality, starvation, gassing; some had been beaten to death, others had simply given up. Not one who had been over the age of 44, and very few of the youngest, were still alive.”

The women spent two years and three months in German camps where they “witnessed both the worst and the best that life had to offer, cruelty, sadism, brutality, betrayal, thievery, but also generosity and selflessness. Their reserves of strength and character had been pushed to the very far limits of endurance and every notion of humanity had been challenged.

An ambivalence marked them all. They no longer felt themselves to be the same people and, looking back at the young women they had once been, full of hope and confidence and excitement, they marvelled at how innocent and trusting they had been. There was no innocence left, in any of them; and they would not find it again.”

I can’t say that I particularly enjoyed this book. From the outset I found it challenging and at times I had to force myself to continue, to plough through the forests of political context and the brief snippets of introduction to the lives of the various characters who litter its pages. But there was no doubt in my mind, from the very first words of this tome, that this is a book that every human being should read, must read.

What Moorehead has accomplished in this one text is mammoth. With amazing dexterity and patience, she has woven a tapestry of France during the Second World War, of the political climate, the people who dared to think differently and speak out and the machinations of the Nazi war machine. And, she has done it all without focusing on ‘the Jewish Question’. The combination of all these elements results in a text that seethes with the tension of the period and I think the absence of a Jewish focus makes this text even more powerful. This is not to imply that Moorehead belittles or diminishes the significance of what happened to the Jews of Europe under Hitler; rather by presenting the experiences of these women, her book creates a more complete picture of what was going evolving beneath the facade of French society during this period.

While the background of France and the War was interesting to read, what was more intriguing was the final segment of the book which shed light on the post-war period, the ‘Return’ and the French responses to this return of refugees and prisoners of war:

“Working day and night under an avalanche of papers, prosecutors considered untainted by the occupation assembled dossiers on 311,000 suspected collaborators and presented them to various courts of justice. A large number of documents was conveniently found to have mysteriously disappeared. Sixty thousand cases were shelved. Of the rest, just over three quarters of those charged were found guilty. Seven hundred and sixty-four people were executed and 46,145 sentenced to ‘national degradation’ which meant that they lost voting rights, were banned from membership of a union and from a number of professions and that they forfeited medals, decorations, honours and pensions.”

While I have grown up with the number 6 million firmly etched in my consciousness, I found myself appalled to read about the sheer volume involved in the Nazi enterprise. Why had I not really comprehended the extent of this before? Why had I not learned more about those who escaped appropriate punishment?

“And there was no always sufficient evidence to convict the clearly guilty. In the dock, in courts all over Europe, those charged argued that they had only obeyed orders, that they had been under duress themselves and that they were victims of mistaken identity.

On trial in Warsaw, Rudolf Hoess, commandant of Auschwitz, struck the court by the calm with which he described the gas chambers, explaining, with technical precision, the process of asphyxiation and how roughly a third of the people died at once, while the others ‘staggered about and began to scream and struggle for air’.”

There was one episode in the book which captured the absurdity of the situation: “Cecile, returning to the 11th arrondissement in Paris, was approached by the policeman she knew had given her away. He put out his hand and smiled. She turned her back on him.” To think that people thought that things would simply return to the way they had been …

And all of these women were heroes: “Marie-Claude was the only survivor of the Convoi des 31000 to be called as witness at Nuremberg. She appeared on the 44th day of the trial, on Monday, 28 January 1946. Dignified and articular, her fair hair wound in a plait around her head, she described, in firm, clear sentences, what she had seen and experienced in Birkenau and Ravensbruck. She answered questions about her arrest in paris, her friends and colleagues shot by the Germans, her months in La Sante prison; then she talked about the journey from Romainville to Auschwitz, the roll calls, the brutality of the guards, the gas chambers. She used the word nous, us, because she was speaking, she said, not just for herself but for the 229 women deported with her. She talked about Alice Viterbo, the singer with only one leg, who had fallen in ‘the race’ and begged Danielle to give her poison before she was driven away to her death…. Later she would say that, sitting in the witness box, looking across at Goring, Bormann, Donitz and von Ribbentrop, she thought to herself: ‘Look at me, because in my eyes you will see hundreds of thousands of eyes staring at you, and in my voice you will hear hundreds of thousands of voices accusing you.'”

The integrity of these women clearly illustrated by Cecile’s response to this event:

“When, the following year, Israel proposed to confer on her a medal as one of the Righteous Among the Nations, she refused to accept it, saying that everything that she had done in Auschwitz and Ravensbruck was only natural, logical and born of a ‘moral obligation’.”

And then how to comprehend the reality of a return when these half people made their way back to their homes to try and re-assemble their lives:

“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.”

Many of them felt as though they had never returned at all:

“Charlotte arrived back in Paris with the feeling that she had indeed survived, not as herself, but as a ghost, floating in a world that in some way did not exist.”

Despite the enormous sorrow that litters the pages of this book, what I learned from reading it was the magnificence of the power of friendship, how it can inspire a person to survive against all odds, how important it is to help us feel human and I think that it is this that haunts me:

“They learnt, they would say, the full meaning of friendship, a commitment to each other that went far deeper than individual liking or disliking; and they now felt wiser, in some indefinable way, because they had understood the depths to which human beings can sink and equally the heights to which it is possible to rise … And they would agree that there were times when the past and the memory of the camps was more real to them than the world about them … Charlotte longed for the first year of return to end, so that she would no longer be able to say to herself: ‘a year ago, at this time…'”

I’ve always thought that people who write about the Holocaust – both survivors and others  – do so in order to ensure that people never forget while at the same time trying themselves to forget. How does humanity move on after a Holocaust like this – how do people become human again? It is impossible to fathom.

“In Charlotte’s “book Auschwitz and After, she spoke of having two selves, an Auschwitz self, and an after-Auschwitz self, like a snake shedding its skin in order to gain a new one; always, she feared that the skin might grow thin, crack and that the camps would get hold of her again. Only, unlike a snake’s skin, her skin of Auschwitz memory, so deeply etched that she could forget no part of it, did not disappear. ‘I live,’ she wrote, ‘alongside it. Auschwitz is there, unalterable, precise, but enveloped in the skin of memory.’

There were thus two kinds of memory: the now, which she called ‘ordinary’ memory, and the ‘me or then’ which was la memoire profonde, deep memory, the memory of the senses. The first allowed her to see Auschwitz as part of a narrative, something that had happened and ended, and it made going on possible. The second condemned her to feel that Auschwitz was never, and would never be, over. The thinking, ordinary memory allowed her to transmit the facts; the feeling memory enabled her to convey a glimpse of the unimaginable anguish that accompanied them. Like Paul Celan and Primo Levi, she used careful, stark words, beautifully balanced and without embellishment, in order to touch the reader by appealing to the senses. She wanted, she would say, to carry her readers into Auschwitz with her, to make it as real for them as it had been, and would always be, for her.”

I count myself as lucky – I have never known such tragedy. I have never had to contemplate the true enormity of this experience and I have never feared for my freedom. I live in comparative luxury, with ‘first world problems’ and I try and never forget to be grateful for these small things.

“Mado, who was 22 when she had been sent to Birkenau, told Charlotte that when her first baby was born after the war, she was overwhelmed by a feeling of immense happiness, but that almost at once she was invaded by ghosts of the women who had died without knowing this particular delight. ‘The silky water of my joy,’ she explained, ‘changed to the sticky mud, sooty snow, fetid marshes.’

Then she went on: ‘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?’… So she had decided not to talk any more about Auschwitz. ‘Looking at me, one would think that I’m alive … I’m not alive. I died in Auschwitz, but no one knows it.'”

2 responses to “A Train in Winter, Caroline Moorehead

  1. I lost a couple of long posts because something went wrong and I did not save or I managed some combination of keystrokes that wiped out my input. There is no restore or undo process that I can discover. Now, if my comments will be more than a paragraph or two, I compose in Word and then paste into WordPress.

    I appreciated your description of the book. Several years ago I saw a movie — sorry, can’t remember the title — about some survivors of the camps who return to Paris and how uncomprehending they found everybody. Also, how they kept hoping day after day that more would return, but they did not.

    • It’s unfathomable, isn’t it? I’ve seen quite a few films – both fictional and documentary – about the Holocaust and I’ve studied it extensively, visited museums in various countries. But I think what has stayed with me is the fact that this book says so much about non-Jewish people. It has really left me feeling quite raw.

      Sent from my iPhone

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