In the years following WW2, there was a surge of psychological papers published discussing the conditions in the Nazi Concentration camps and their impact on survivors. The concentration camps, although undeniably horrible, offer a unique opportunity to explore human behavior under the most desperate and deplorable of conditions.
One such paper by Elmer Luchterhand* determined that the basic unit of survival of the concentration camps is the pair. That is, people who came into the camp with a familiar person, or bonded with a person early on, tended to survive longer than the 1.5 month average. Pairs of prisoners can steal for each other, hold each other up during roll call or marches and keep each others’ spirits up. Having a ‘buddy’ to talk with about a better future and someone to be accountable to gave people a reason not to give up. Luchterhand found countless stories about people who were managing to survive until their buddy died, at which time they lost the will to live and deteriorated rapidly. At the end of the war, those who survived the longest in the camps were pairs.
Caroline Mooreheads’ “A Train in Winter: An Extraordinary Story of Women, Friendship and Resistance in Occupied France” is a story of such a social group. The 230 women who left Paris on a single train were bound together at first only by their devotion to the French resistance. This semi-political movement served to sabotage German military function, hide Jews and other political prisoners and aid the allies whenever possible. The women in the resistance were fearless in their actions and stoic in the face of their capture by the Germans. These women formed pairs and other small family-type units, becoming each others’ only hope for survival. Like the prisoners in Luchterhands’ study, they kept each other alive, through both physical and mental salvation.
On January 26th 1943, the women reached Birkenau, the primary womens’ camp at Auschwitz where they faced the most terrible of conditions. They were one of only a few groups of non-Jewish prisoners to be sent here, and it was here at their survival was most threatened, and their relationships were most essential. By the time of their release from the Raisko satellite camp in 1945, 49 of the women had survived. As Moorehead drives home in her book, the fact that 49 of the French women survived is an incredible feat, as this number is well above the odds with the survival statistics for incarcerations over 3 months. At the same time, the women in her book drive home the point that it was because they had each other that they did so. Story after story told in this book illustrate the power of camaraderie over terrible circumstance.
A Train in Winter is a historical non-fiction book, not an easy read by an means. Moorehead wrote this book after what was obviously extensive and exhaustive historical research, as well as interviews with the surviving women and their families. The book is thorough and detailed, at times almost difficult to read because of the detail given surrounding the cruelty in concentration camps. If you are looking to learn about this incredible group of women, and how they managed to overcome the odds and survive, this is a truly wonderful book.
If I had one criticism of this book, it would be that because Moorehead focuses on the lives of so many women, I found it difficult to connect to any one character. I’m not great with names, and she tends to jump from woman to woman rather rapidly,and so that opportunity to connect on a personal level with this book was missed. I believe that focusing on the experience of one or two women would have made this book much easier to read, but then the story about the group as a whole would be lost.
Overall, I would recommend this book, but with the warning that this is not a beach read. The book is rather dense and full of names, dates and history. It gives perspectives of lives during WW2 that are not normally featured in Remembrance Day ceremonies and is certainly a worthwhile read.
*Luchterhand, Elmer (1967). Prisoner Behavior and Social System in the Nazi Camp, Int. J of Psychiatry 13, 245-64