In January 1943, 230 Frenchwomen were deported from occupied France to Birkenau, the women's section of Auchwitz. The youngest was 16, a schoolgirl who was accused of writing Vive les Anglais on the walls of her lycee. She was put on the only train, during the entire four years of German occupation, to take women from the French Resistance to the Nazi death camps. Most of these women were professionals and intellectuals who put their lives on hold to play important roles in the resistance movement. They were mothers, grandmothers, dentists, doctors and teachers. While many of the women arrested were members of the communist party, they were not alone in resisting the occupation and Petain's so called "free zone." Acts of rebellion were being carried out by Catholics, Jews and Gaullists all over France. There was a war within the war going on daily with the French police who were diligent in tracking down and imprisoning the resisters.
Of the 230 French women, thirty-four of them communists, who had left Paris twenty-nine months earlier on the death train, had lived to see the end of the war. a hundred and eighty-one of their friends and companions had died, of typhus, brutality, starvation, gassing; some had been beaten to death, others had simply given up. Not one who had been over the age of 44, and very few of the younges, were still alive.
In 2008, Caroline Moorhead decided to go in search of the women who had left Paris on that train 65 years earlier and see if any might have survived and be alive to tell the tale. She discovered seven of the women still alive who were in their 90s. Three were too frail to be interviewed, but Moorehead was able to meet and talk with their families. Four of the women were able to tell their stories. And what tales they tell, of the French prisons called chateaux de la morte lente (slow death), of the hunger they felt, of the ways they found to keep spirits up, the sharing and the caring for each other. The reader learns how the friendship and compassion these women had for each other, helped them survive the tortures and death that they faced every day, up until the final horror of arriving at the death camp.
The first part of the book describes the resistance movement and the ways they were able to evade detection. Many characters are introduced and it is a little difficult to keep them straight. The second part of the book, tells much of their suffering in prison and the friendships that were forged there. This is where the reader gets to know the character and strength of these women. Throughout the book, Moorhead has inserted many photos of happy families and women smiling during the good times between the two world wars. This allows the reader to feel closer to the women as their stories unfold. There is also an appendix that lists all the women deported and brief facts about each.
It is not easy to read of these brave women and know that most did not survive to return to their children and families. It is a sad book in the end, admiring these brave people and knowing how they suffered and met their end. It is a valuable record of a valiant group dedicated to freedom and decency in the face of the insurmountable difficulties of an occupied nation.