“Meuilmartant” was short, while “Femme République” wore a grey dress made of angora wool. “Femme Buisson St Louis” was slender, and wore a blue coat when she met “Buissori” on the street. The Gestapo collaborators in occupied Paris during World War II did not know the real names of many of the French Resistance members, so they assigned them nicknames in order to track their movements. The relentless monitoring paid off for the German army: A city-wide sweep in February of 1942 netted them over 100 French Resistance members.
This event was just the beginning of a long and tragic journey that would bring 230 women together, while their families, their countries, and their own lives were irreversibly torn apart.
In A Train in Winter: An Extraordinary Story of Women, Friendship, and Resistance in Occupied France, journalist and renowned biographer Caroline Moorehead weaves together first-person accounts including interviews, diaries, letters, and photographs, creating a chorus of women’s voices whose stories may never have been told so clearly before now.
The first half of the book focuses on the French Resistance and the women who made up the army of writers, printers, ammunition makers, and couriers who risked their lives and their families’ well-being in response to their ever-decreasing freedom and quality of life under German occupation. When one mother was asked how she could work for the Resistance when there was her family to consider, her response was simple. “It is because I have a child that I do it, this is not a world I wish her to grow up in.”
By the spring of 1942, the occupiers were cracking down and anyone exhibiting anti-German sentiment, however slight, was rounded up and detained at a fort in Romainville that had been turned into as a prison. After months of torture and mass killings, 230 women ranging in age from 17 to 67 boarded a train to Birkenau (part of the infamous Auschwitz concentration camp), thinking that they were being taken to work in a German factory. Only 49 of these women would ever return to France.
Known as “Le Convoi des 31,000” (named for the numbers tattooed on their arms by the Nazis which represented the transport they arrived on), the 230 women forged a bond that would not be broken by common enemies, hunger, extreme pain, unimaginable torture, or even death. In their minds the only thing worse than suffering among their companions would be to separated from them. Not even the company of other French women equaled the power of “Le Convoi des 31,000”.
After two years and three months of concentration camps, the surviving members of “Le Convoi” returned to their native France to find a country bruised and battered from years of war. Inevitably, the women were changed as well. “It was a different world, and they had become different people.”
Their lingering health issues and emotional distress lasted long past their return to their homes and families. They struggled with survivor’s guilt, and the stark realization that many people did not want to hear about the horrors that they had been through.
After the war, the women continued to honor the bond with the other 229 women that they shared the bitterly cold train cars with on that fateful January day in 1943. “The friendship between them, stronger than anything they had known in their previous lives, had become their credo; it defined them.”
At times, especially in the first half of the book, the sheer number of individual stories and names can feel overwhelming to the reader. (Moorehead thoughtfully includes an appendix of the 49 surviving women with as much detail about the women as was available to her). Nevertheless, as Moorehead delves deeply into the women’s fight for survival, her narrative seamlessly comes together in order to share a significant part of history whose time has come to be heard.
Meganne Fabrega is a freelance writer and a member of the National Book Critics Circle.