The Nazis marched into Paris in the early hours of June 14, 1940, leaving the French shocked at how quickly their country had fallen. Most of the populace watched and waited as swastikas went up on Parisian boulevards — but not everyone.
Journalist Caroline Moorehead's latest book, A Train in Winter: An Extraordinary Story of Women, Friendship, and Resistance in Occupied France, chronicles what happened to 230 women from all over the country who did not accept the occupation quietly.
The women — couriers, printers, clandestine radio operators — were rounded up in the first major French police operations against the Resistance. They ended up in the Romainville prison on the outskirts of Paris.
"They started coming together by the late spring of 1942, and quite soon, these women began to form friendships," Moorehead tells weekends on All Things Considered guest host Jacki Lyden. "They were in dormitories, they shared their food, they taught each other things."
That bond would keep many of them alive. In January 1943, the women were loaded onto cattle cars and sent east to Auschwitz.
"When they got there, it was quickly plain that some ... would not survive at all," Moorehead says. Of the 230 women, only 49 returned at the end of the war. The ghastly conditions at Auschwitz were heartbreaking for the French women, Moorehead says, but that only strengthened their determination to get each other through.
"One of the most touching things one of them said to me was, 'You have to understand, there came a moment when our own deaths were no more important to us than the deaths of our friends,'" Moorehead says.
Life proved difficult for most of the 49 who returned. Their health — both mental and physical — had been broken in the camps, she says, and they often felt as if there was no place for them in a recovering France.
Moorehead tracked down four survivors — all in their 80s and 90s — who were well enough to describe what they had been through. "They were extremely friendly and warm, and they were extremely keen to tell their stories," she says.
"One of the problems for these women it when they got back — it was not until the summer of 1945, when France had been liberated for a year — and nobody really wanted to hear their stories," Moorehead says. Charles de Gaulle had promised that the country would be swift to punish traitors and collaborators — but then, France would move on.
"I had the feeling when I went to see them," she says, "that they were longing to tell their whole story from beginning to end, to somebody who really, really wanted to listen."
JACKI LYDEN, HOST:
This is WEEKENDS on ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Jacki Lyden. The women of the French resistance came from all over France. The Nazis entered Paris in the early hours of June 14th, 1940, and what surprised everyone was how quickly France fell. Most of the populace watched and waited as swastikas went up on the Parisian boulevards, but not everyone. Journalist and biographer Caroline Moorehead's latest book, "A Train in Winter: An Extraordinary Story of Women, Friendship and Resistance in Occupied France," chronicles what happened to 230 French women from all over the country who did not accept the occupation quietly.
The women ranged in age from a 15-year-old schoolgirl - she'd written Vive Les Anglais on the wall of her lycee - to a 67-year-old widow who ran a boarding house. Many of them were communists, the party most organized to resist the occupier. But not all of them were even particularly political. They were strangers to each other for the most part, united in opposition to occupation, the treatment of the Jews, the trampling of France. Moorehead researched what happened to these women during and after they were sent as a group to Auschwitz on January 24, 1943. And she joins me now from our London bureau to talk about her book. Caroline Moorehead, welcome to the show.
CAROLINE MOOREHEAD: Thank you very much.
LYDEN: A few years ago, you went in search of survivors of a convoy, a convoy called 31000, and this was the convoy that took these women to Auschwitz. You found four of them: Betty, Cecile, Madeleine, Poupette. Tell me a little bit about them.
MOOREHEAD: It was very exciting finding those four. There were two others alive, but they were not well enough to see me. Those four women were extraordinary and very different, one from the other. Cecile came from Brittany. She was a furrier's apprentice. She was a stocky, tough-minded woman of huge charm, and she had joined the resistance. She had been a communist, and she'd become a courier for the resistance. And her story was particularly interesting or particularly touching to me because she had a young daughter. So she went to her mother and said to her mother, would she look after her young daughter while she went underground. And the mother said, I don't know how you can do this since you have a child. And Cecile replied, it is because I have a child that I'm doing it. I do not want a daughter of mine to grow up in a world governed by the German occupiers in Vichy. That was Cecile.
Betty came from Paris where she was a secretary. And she was extremely elegant and very, very dressed up. And she traveled about all over France carrying messages for the networks in her shopping bags. And when she was on the trains going across the demarcation line, she used to very often get the German officers who were traveling on the same train to carry her suitcase, which might well contain pamphlets for the underground or even radio transmitters.
There was Poupette, who was only 17 in 1942, and she and her older sister, Marie, whose parents had a hotel in Rennes, had hidden radio transmitters. And Poupette spent seven months in solitary confinement not knowing that her sister was in fact in a cell just up the corridor from her. And the last one, Madeleine, was a schoolteacher in Normandy. And she had helped organize a sabotage of a train. So you see, these women were very different kinds of women.
LYDEN: They all end up in a prison called Romainville just outside Paris, where this incredible bond begins to form between them.
MOOREHEAD: They started coming together by the late spring of 1942. And quite soon, these women began to form friendships. They were in dormitories. They shared their food. They taught each other things. Poupette told me that for her, it had been the most extraordinary education because she had missed a lot of schooling because of the war. When she found herself in Romainville, she started listening to these women. And because these women were teachers and philosophers and journalists and doctors, she learned a huge amount.
LYDEN: In January of 1943, they were put on a train heading east. This is the train for which you named the book, the Convoy 31000. What follows is harrowing, and I have to say that your reportage - you have a long background in human rights reportage - is so detailed that it is very difficult to read and yet we must read it. Two hundred and thirty of these women are on this convoy; only 49 of them will come back. What happens?
MOOREHEAD: When they got there, it was quickly plain that some, particularly the very much older ones, would not survive at all, though what they actually died of is very hard to say, because they - if they didn't have typhus and they weren't gassed and it was too soon to die of hunger. They died of sort of horror, really, the older ones.
Some of the younger ones died very quickly, died calling for their mothers. They just didn't have the psychological strength, if you like. Typhus took a lot of them. Took Danielle Casanova, who'd been one of their leaders, who was a dentist and a very sort of tough, robust young woman. And many of those friends were, of course, split up. And Marie, Poupette's sister, died. And this was heartbreaking for all the others. But they really then set about looking after each other. And one of the most touching things one of them said to me was you have to understand that there came a moment when our own deaths were no more important to us than the deaths of our friends. What we were determined to do was to get as many people through this as we could.
LYDEN: Caroline Moorehead, one of the most tragic parts to this story is after they return from these horrors of captivity, their lives are really, for the most part, quite scarred and broken by what they experienced. A third of them die within the next decade. Why was that?
MOOREHEAD: When I started out on this book, the general feeling was that I was going to write yet another gloomy book. And I said, no, no, it'll be perfectly all right when you get to the end. You will only just have a small gloomy bit when they're in Auschwitz. And after that, they'll come home and everything will be good and they'll be happy. The problem was that what they had been through was too much.
Now, a number did come back and make new lives. They married, very often, other people who had been in the resistance. They had children or they came back to their own children. And they more or less put their lives together. A number didn't. A number just simply could not put it behind them.
LYDEN: Eventually, though, the French do recognize them. Many of them are given the Legion d'honneur, the medal of honor. You met four of them in person, as we said at the beginning, women for the most part in their mid-90s, amazing survivors, living independently. What was it like to be in their presence?
MOOREHEAD: They were extremely friendly and warm, and they were extremely keen to tell their stories. One of the problems for these women is when they got back it was not until the summer of 1945 when France had been liberated for a year, and nobody really wanted to hear their stories. There were these sad, emaciated, anxious, depressed women. And they weren't part of what the new France wanted. And I had the feeling when I went to see them that they were longing to tell their whole story from beginning to end to somebody who really, really wanted to listen. I mean, it was a remarkable thing for me to able to do this.
LYDEN: That's Caroline Moorehead. Her new book is called "A Train in Winter: An Extraordinary Story of Women, Friendship and Resistance in Occupied France." And extraordinary it is. Caroline Moorehead, thank you so very much.
MOOREHEAD: Thank you very much. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.