a train in winter

On an icy dawn morning in Paris in January 1943, a group of 230 French women resisters were rounded up from the Gestapo detention camps and sent on a train to Auschwitz – the only train, in the four years of German occupation, to take women of the resistance to a death camp. The youngest was a schoolgirl of 15, the eldest a farmer’s wife of 68; there were among them teachers, biochemists, sales girls, secretaries, housewives and university lecturers.

 The women turned to one another, finding solace and strength in friendship and shared experience. They supported and cared for one another, worked together, and faced the horror together. Friendship, almost as much as luck, dictated survival. Forty-nine of them came home.

This book was probably not the best choice for this time of year, considering the content, but there were those of us who found an amazing read within its pages, regardless.

The abuse and degradation these resistance fighters experienced in Birkenau is not easy to take in, and we are all aware of the horrors committed during Hitler’s rein, but the story of these women’s strength and endurance under such extreme conditions and cruelty cannot help but impart a real sense of wonder and respect. The bond created by these women attests to the power of human fortitude when pushed to the limits. Was this what helped keep some of them alive? No doubt, although we did comment that some succumbed very early on, before a real connection was formed. Did this make a difference? Unanswerable questions to be sure.

Our conversation extended beyond the women and their plight into the general politics of WW II, Hitler’s strategies and the overall effects of war. The attempted annihilation of the Jewish population took us to a very broad and edifying discussion of multiculturalism, racism and the tenuous condition of the human spirit after extreme suffering. Heavy stuff? Not really. Everyone felt more informed after reading this book and it always feels better to speak about what you have discovered, coming to terms with information that ordinarily would be unacceptable.

In the end, Moorehead summed up the book well with survivor Charlotte and her quote –  ‘Looking at me, one would think that I’m alive … I’m not alive. I died in Auschwitz, but no one knows it.

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