I’ve been fascinated by tales of the resistance movement in WWII since I was a girl. It was sparked by those tales of the brave souls who brought food and goods to the Frank family up in the attic.
The idea thrilled me, but I was certain that I couldn’t be that brave. Now that I am grown, I am still fascinated by what draws people into this role.
What makes an individual brave enough to battle and to resist? So when I started reading A Train in Winter, I began by noting the reasons that the women gave for having joined the resistance.
Take, for instance, Cécile, who worked as a liaison officer. She was responsible for carrying payment to the clandestine printers (say, of resistance tracts and reports of international news), for making arrangements for these flyers and pamphlets to be collected and distributed.
It sounds very simple, but she put her life on the line with every action.
Her mother, who soon took over the care of Cécile’s young daughter, when Cécile recognized the increased risks she was taking and moved alone into a small flat in Paris, demanded “How can you do this work if you have a child?”
And here is Cécile’s reply: “It is because I have a child that I do it. This is not a world I wish her to grow up in.”
These schoolgirls, mothers, grandmothers, housewives and professional women did not feel that they had a choice.
The women of the resistance in Caroline Moorehead’s book did not ask themselves whether they could or should. As Madeleine states (not asks): “How could you not resist? You couldn’t live under the Nazis. You just couldn’t accept it.”
Cecile. Madeleine. There are so many women’s names to take note of in this work.
It’s a little overwhelming at first. Sometimes only a couple of lines, other times a couple of paragraphs, on occasion a couple of pages, are devoted to these fighters.
Entire lives are encapsulated into these brief passages: the years of their lives that led them to their contact with the resistance (often they were exposed through other family members, brothers and sisters, parents too), their own direct involvement, the circles in which they travelled (which often overlapped), and, most often, the route by which they were halted or arrested or sentenced.
I soon stopped noting the reasons for their joining the movement; I understood, finally, that they weren’t superwomen, that none of them felt that they had a choice, they simply acted as they felt they must act.
As Boris Vildé wrote in Résistance, one of many underground periodicals that were published: “To resist, is already to preserve one’s heart and one’s brain. But above all, it must be to act, to do something concrete, to perform reasoned and useful actions.”
I wasn’t alone in having found it difficult to understand that women would voluntarily take on this role however; one of the elements that is so striking about the women’s involvement was that the authorities could not believe it either.
In the early autumn of 1941, the “myth of unpolitical, home-loving woman [was] still prevailing across much of France”.
One young woman on her bicycle acting as a courier said she was out looking for food for her rabbit. One served German soldiers drinks in her pub in the front of a building while, in the back, she housed fugitives. Women were practically above suspicion.
And, then, they were not. Only a few months later, the Special Brigade’s intense and intricate efforts to gather information about the resistance networks finally paid off for them (they were a group of French investigators who operated in conjunction with the Gestapo in occupied France). Women were revealed to play important roles in the resistance.
In the summer of 1942, the women who had been arrested were moved from local prisons to the military fort, Romainville, where they awaited transport elsewhere. In four years of occupation, there wre 4,000 women moved through Romainville.
The first group of 230 arrived there on August 1, 1942. It is this group which is at the heart of Caroline Moorehead’s A Train in Winter.
What is a little disorienting for the reader is that the author has a much greater familiarity with her subjects than the reader can possibly acquire over the course of 300-some-odd pages.
Much of the first half of the book has been acquainting us with her subjects, but it’s hard to track someone to whom you’ve been introduced over the course of a few sentences across a major prose work.
The author is obviously aware of this and endeavours to assist by offering sensory details (e.g. red-painted fingernails, an otter-fur-coat, exceptionally high-heeled shoes) and providing connections between some of the women (e.g. mother-daughter, couple-friends). And there are many photographs included, too, which are wonderful aids to bring the stories into focus.
Overall, it is a lot of information. But if the alternative was to have erased the presence of even one of these women, I am glad that Caroline Moorehead chose, instead, to overwhelm me as a reader with one more short tale.
That’s something else I made a lot of notes about: short tales of resistance. For instance, once all the women are housed in the city prison, they all together risked punishment to loudly sing happy birthday to one of the youngest inmates. There are some amazing stories of voices raised in song to make a statement (often much less celebratory than this example).
But eventually, as I had stopped making notes of the individual women’s reasons for joining the resistance, I stopped making notes of these heroic stories. I understood that there were countless acts of heroism, that that was one of the driving forces to produce a book-length work. A note could not do it justice.
“In Charlotte’s carriage, Jakoba van der Lee, a Dutch woman in her early fifties, who had once been married to an Arab sheikh, placed her black hat on top of her suitcase, unfolded her blanket and wrapped her magnificent otter coat around her legs. Of all the women on the train, the reason for her presence was perhaps the most absurd: she had written a letter to her brother in Holland, wistfully predicting Hitler’s defeat. It had been intercepted by the Germans.”
You’ll see that the language isn’t fancy and there isn’t a lot of detail, but there is enough to give a sense of the person, just enough to allow the reader to distinguish her in later pages. This is evocative prose, not dry academically-styled exposition.
You’ll also see that reading this requires a certain acceptance of the fact that the reader will not be able to keep each of these voices distinct throughout the work after such brief introductions.
But after you have met and been drawn to even a few of these women, you’ll also share the sense that their stories must be told (however briefly that is, in relationship to the expansive risks they took perpetrating their acts of resistance) and that they must be read.
That’s what it comes down to. You know from the outset that this book will contain a great deal of tragedy. But it is, too, as the subtitle of the American edition states, about women, friendship, and resistance. Even if you are only interested in one of these elements, I am convinced you would find this a worthwhile read.
“‘We didn’t stop to ask ourselves whom we liked and whom we didn’t,’ Cécile would later say. ‘It wasn’t so much friendship as solidarity. We just made certain we didn’t leave anyone alone.’”
There are many moments of beauty at which to marvel in this work. You will find yourself wanting to make note of each one of them, too.
Sebastian Faulks’ Charlotte Gray (1997)
Rosemary Sullivan’s Villa Bel-Air: World War Two, Escape, and a House in Marseille (2006)
Please consider visiting the other participants’ sites for other readers’ experiences of this work.
Tuesday, November 8th: Unabridged Chick
Friday, November 11th: Elle Lit.
Monday, November 14th: Diary of an Eccentric
Wednesday, November 16th: Among Stories
Wednesday, November 16th: Unabridged Chick - author interview
Thursday, November 17th: Broken Teepee
Friday, November 18th: Ted Lehmann’s Bluegrass, Books, and Brainstorms
Monday, November 21st: Jenny Loves to read
Tuesday, November 22nd: Picky Girl
Monday, November 28th: Reviews by Lola
Tuesday, November 29th: Buried in Print
Wednesday, November 30th: Savvy Verse & Wit
And yet to come: