In January 1943, 230 women of the French Resistance were sent to the death camps by the Nazis who had invaded and occupied their country. This is their story, told in full for the first time—a searing and unforgettable chronicle of terror, courage, defiance, survival, and the power of friendship. Caroline Moorehead, a distinguished biographer, human rights journalist, and the author of Dancing to the Precipice and Human Cargo, brings to life an extraordinary story that readers of Mitchell Zuckoff’s Lost in Shangri-La, Erik Larson’s In the Garden of Beasts, and Laura Hillenbrand’s Unbroken will find an essential addition to our retelling of the history of World War II—a riveting, rediscovered story of courageous women who sacrificed everything to combat the march of evil across the world.
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About the Author
Caroline Moorehead is the New York Times bestselling author of the Resistance Quartet, which includes A Bold and Dangerous Family, Village of Secrets, and A Train in Winter, as well as Human Cargo, a National Book Critics Circle Award finalist. An acclaimed biographer, she has written for the New York Review of Books, The Guardian, and The Independent. She lives in London and Italy.
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A Train in WinterAn Extraordinary Story of Women, Friendship, and Resistance in Occupied France
By Caroline Moorehead
HarperCollinsCopyright © 2011 Caroline Moorehead
All right reserved.
Chapter OneAn enormous toy full of subtleties
What surprised the Parisians, standing in little groups along the
Champs-Elysées to watch the German soldiers take over their city
in the early hours of 14 June 1940, was how youthful and healthy
they looked. Tall, fair, clean shaven, the young men marching to
the sounds of a military band to the Arc de Triomphe were
observed to be wearing uniforms of good cloth and gleaming
boots made of real leather. The coats of the horses pulling the
cannons glowed. It seemed not an invasion but a spectacle. Paris
itself was calm and almost totally silent. Other than the steady
waves of tanks, motorized infantry and troops, nothing moved.
Though it had rained hard on the 13th, the unseasonal great heat
of early June had returned.
And when they had stopped staring, the Parisians returned to
their homes and waited to see what would happen. A spirit of
attentisme, of holding on, doing nothing, watching, settled over
The speed of the German victory the Panzers into Luxembourg
on 10 May, the Dutch forces annihilated, the Meuse crossed on
13 May, the French army and air force proved obsolete, ill
equipped, badly led and fossilized by tradition, the British
Expeditionary Force obliged to fall back at Dunkirk, Paris bombed
on 3 June had been shocking. Few had been able to take in the
fact that a nation whose military valour was epitomized by the
battle of Verdun in the First World War and whose defenses had
been guaranteed by the supposedly impregnable Maginot line,
had been reduced, in just six weeks, to a stage of vassalage. Just
what the consequences would be were impossible to see; but they
were not long in coming.
By midday on the 14th, General Sturnitz, military commandant
of Paris, had set up his headquarters in the Hotel Crillon. Since
Paris had been declared an open city there was no destruction.
A German flag was hoisted over the Arc de Triomphe, and
swastikas raised over the Hôtel de Ville, the Chamber of Deputies,
the Senate and the various ministries. Edith Thomas, a young
Marxist historian and novelist, said they made her think of 'huge
spiders, glutted with blood'. The Grand Palais was turned into a
garage for German lorries, the École Polytechnique into a barracks.
The Luftwaffe took over the Grand Hotel in the Place de l'Opéra.
French signposts came down; German ones went up. French time
was advanced by one hour, to bring it into line with Berlin. The
German mark was fixed at almost twice its pre-war level. In the
hours after the arrival of the occupiers, sixteen people committed
suicide, the best known of them Thierry de Martel, inventor in
France of neurosurgery, who had fought at Gallipoli.
The first signs of German behaviour were, however, reassuring.
All property was to be respected, providing people were obedient
to German demands for law and order. Germans were to take
control of the telephone exchange and, in due course, of the
railways, but the utilities would remain in French hands. The
burning of sackfuls of state archives and papers in the Ministry
of Foreign Affairs, carried out as the Germans arrived, was inconvenient,
but not excessively so, as much had been salvaged. General
von Brauchtisch, commander-in-chief of the German troops,
ordered his men to behave with 'perfect correctness'. When it
became apparent that the Parisians were planning no revolt, the
curfew, originally set for forty-eight hours, was lifted. The French,
who had feared the savagery that had accompanied the invasion
of Poland, were relieved. They handed in their weapons, as
instructed, accepted that they would henceforth only be able to
hunt rabbits with terriers or stoats, and registered their much
loved carrier pigeons. The Germans, for their part, were astonished
by the French passivity.
When, over the next days and weeks, those who had fled south
in a river of cars, bicycles, hay wagons, furniture vans, ice-cream
carts, hearses and horse-drawn drays, dragging behind them
prams, wheelbarrows and herds of animals, returned, they were
amazed by how civilized the conquerors seemed to be. There was
something a little shaming about this chain reaction of terror, so
reminiscent of the Grand Peur that had driven the French from
their homes in the early days of the revolution of 1797. In 1940
it was not, after all, so very terrible. The French were accustomed
to occupation; they had endured it, after all, in 1814, 1870 and
1914, and then there had been chaos and looting. Now they
found German soldiers in the newly reopened Galeries Lafayette,
buying stockings and shoes and scent for which they scrupulously
paid, sightseeing in Notre Dame, giving chocolates to small children
and offering their seats to elderly women on the métro.
Soup kitchens had been set up by the Germans in various parts
of Paris, and under the flowering chestnut trees in the Jardin des
Tuileries, military bands played Beethoven. Paris remained eerily
silent, not least because the oily black cloud that had enveloped
the city after the bombing of the huge petrol dumps in the Seine
estuary had wiped out most of the bird population. Hitler, who
paid a lightning visit on 28 June, was photographed slapping his
knee in delight under the Eiffel Tower. As the painter and photographer
Jacques Henri Lartigue remarked, the German conquerors
were behaving as if they had just been presented with a wonderful
new toy, 'an enormous toy full of subtleties which they do not
On 16 June, Paul Reynaud, the Prime Minister who had presided
over the French government's flight from Paris to Tours and then
to Bordeaux, resigned, handing power to the much loved hero of
Verdun, Marshal Pétain. At 12.30 on the 17th, Pétain, his thin,
crackling voice reminding Arthur Koestler of a 'skeleton with a
chill', announced over the radio that he had agreed to head a new
government and that he was asking Germany for an armistice.
The French people, he said, were to 'cease fighting' and to
cooperate with the German authorities. 'Have confidence in the
German soldier!' read posters that soon appeared on every wall.
The terms of the armistice, signed after twenty-seven hours of
negotiation in the clearing at Rethondes in the forest of Compiègne
in which the German military defeat had been signed at the end
of the First World War, twenty-two years before, were brutal. The
geography of France was redrawn. Forty-nine of France's eighty-
seven mainland departments three-fifths of the country were
to be occupied by Germany. Alsace and Lorraine were to be
annexed. The Germans would control the Atlantic and Channel
coasts and all areas of important heavy industry, and have the
right to large portions of French raw materials. A heavily guarded
1,200-kilometre demarcation line, cutting France in half and
running from close to Geneva in the east, west to near Tours,
then south to the Spanish border, was to separate the occupied
zone in the north from the 'free zone' in the south, and there
would be a 'forbidden zone' in the north and east, ruled by the
German High Command in Brussels. An exorbitant daily sum
was to be paid over by the French to cover the costs of occupation.
Policing of a demilitarized zone along the Italian border was
to be given to the Italians who, not wishing to miss out on the
spoils, had declared war on France on 10 June.
The French government came to rest in Vichy, a fashionable
spa on the right bank of the river Allier in the Auvergne. Here,
Pétain and his chief minister, the appeaser and pro-German Pierre
Laval, set about putting in place a new French state. On paper
at least, it was not a German puppet but a legal, sovereign state
with diplomatic relations. During the rapid German advance,
some 100,000 French soldiers had been killed in action, 200,000
wounded and 1.8 million others were now making their way into
captivity in prisoner-of-war camps in Austria and Germany, but
a new France was to rise out of the ashes of the old. 'Follow me,'
declared Pétain: 'keep your faith in La France Eternelle'. Pétain
was 84 years old. Those who preferred not to follow him scrambled
to leave France over the border into Spain and Switzerland
or across the Channel and began to group together as the Free
French with French nationals from the African colonies who had
argued against a negotiated surrender to Germany.
In this France envisaged by Pétain and his Catholic, conservative,
authoritarian and often anti-Semitic followers, the country
would be purged and purified, returned to a mythical golden age
before the French revolution introduced perilous ideas about
equality. The new French were to respect their superiors and the
values of discipline, hard work and sacrifice and they were to
shun the decadent individualism that had, together with Jews,
Freemasons, trade unionists, immigrants, gypsies and communists,
contributed to the military defeat of the country.
Returning from meeting Hitler at Montoire on 24 October,
Pétain declared: 'With honour, and to maintain French unity . . .
I am embarking today on the path of collaboration'. Relieved
that they would not have to fight, disgusted by the British bombing
of the French fleet at anchor in the Algerian port of Mers-el-Kebir,
warmed by the thought of their heroic fatherly leader, most French
people were happy to join him. But not, as it soon turned out,
all of them.
* * *
Long before they reached Paris, the Germans had been preparing
for the occupation of France. There would be no gauleiter as in
the newly annexed Alsace-Lorraine but there would be military
rule of a minute and highly bureaucratic kind. Everything from the
censorship of the press to the running of the postal services was
to be under tight German control. A thousand railway officials
arrived to supervise the running of the trains. France was to be
regarded as an enemy kept in faiblesse inférieure, a state of
dependent weakness, and cut off from the reaches of all Allied
forces. It was against this background of collaboration and
occupation that the early Resistance began to take shape.
A former scoutmaster and reorganiser of the Luftwaffe, Otto
von Stülpnagel, a disciplinarian Prussian with a monocle, was
named chief of the Franco-German Armistice Commission.
Moving into the Hotel Majestic, he set about organizing the
civilian administration of occupied France, with the assistance of
German civil servants, rapidly drafted in from Berlin. Von
Stülpnagel's powers included both the provisioning and security
of the German soldiers and the direction of the French economy.
Not far away, in the Hotel Crillon in the rue de Rivoli, General
von Sturnitz was busy overseeing day to day life in the capital.
In requisitioned hotels and town houses, men in gleaming boots
were assisted by young German women secretaries, soon known
to the French as 'little grey mice'.
There was, however, another side to the occupation, which was
neither as straightforward, nor as reasonable; and nor was it as
tightly under the German military command as von Stülpnagel
and his men would have liked. This was the whole apparatus of
the secret service, with its different branches across the military
and the police.
After the protests of a number of his generals about the behaviour
of the Gestapo in Poland, Hitler had agreed that no SS
security police would accompany the invading troops into France.
Police powers would be placed in the hands of the military
administration alone. However Reichsführer Heinrich Himmler, the
myopic, thin-lipped 40-year-old Chief of the German Police, who
had long dreamt of breeding a master race of Nordic Ayrans, did
not wish to see his black-shirted SS excluded. He decided to
dispatch to Paris a bridgehead of his own, which he could later
use to send in more of his men. Himmler ordered his deputy,
Reinhard Heydrich, the cold-blooded head of the Geheime Staatspolizei
or Gestapo, which he had built up into an instrument of terror,
to include a small group of twenty men, wearing the uniform of the Abwehr's
secret military police, and driving vehicles with military plates.
In charge of this party was a 30-year-old journalist with a
doctorate in philosophy, called Helmut Knochen. Knochen was
a specialist in Jewish repression and spoke some French. After
commandeering a house on the avenue Foch with his team of
experts in anti-terrorism and Jewish affairs, he called on the Paris
Prefecture, where he demanded to be given the dossiers on all
German émigrés, all Jews, and all known anti-Nazis. Asked by
the military what he was doing, he said he was conducting research
Knochen and his men soon became extremely skillful at infiltration,
the recruitment of informers and as interrogators.
Under him, the German secret services would turn into the most feared
German organization in France, permeating every corner of the Nazi system.
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Table of Contents
1 An enormous toy full of subtleties 15
2 The flame of French resistance 35
3 Daughters of the Enlightenment 69
4 The hunt for resisters 100
5 Waiting for the wolf 137
6 Indulgent towards women 156
7 Recognising the unthinkable 198
8 'We have other plans for them' 219
9 Frontstalag 122 249
10 Le Convoi des 31000 301
11 The meaning of friendship 346
12 Keeping alive, remaining me 360
13 The disposables 401
14 Pausing before the battle 437
15 Slipping into the shadows 476
Appendix: the women 527
Source notes 566
List of illustrations 577
What People are Saying About This
“[A] moving novelistic portrait. . . . An inspiring and fascinating read.”
“A necessary book. . . . Compelling and moving. . . . The literature of wartime France and the Holocaust is by now so vast as to confound the imagination, but when a book as good as this comes along, we are reminded that there is always room for something new.”
“By turns heartbreaking and inspiring.”
“Even history’s darkest moments can be illuminated by spectacular courage, such as courage that Caroline Moorehead movingly celebrates in A Train in Winter. . . . Moorehead has created a somber account, sensitively rendered, of yet another grim legacy of war.”
“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.”
“The first complete account of these extraordinary women and, incredibly, over 60 years later we are still learning new and terrible truths about the Holocaust. . . . An important new perspective. . . . Careful research and sensitive retelling.”
“An extremely moving and intensely personal history of the Auschwitz universe as experienced by these women. . . . A powerful and moving book.”
“[Moorehead] traces the lives and deaths of all her subjects with unswerving candor and compassion. . . . In Moorehead’s telling, neither evil nor good is banal; and if the latter doesn’t always triumph, it certainly inspires.”