by Susan Cheong
Courage, determination and immense bravery, these were the qualities demonstrated by 230 women of the French Resistance, deported to the death camps of Auschwitz on 24 January 1943.
In an interview with Australian journalist David Marr, British author Caroline Moorehead revealed an extraordinary story of the women featured in her book A Train in Winter at the Sydney Writer’s Festival.
To discover their story, she delved into German, French and Polish archives, documents held by World War II resistance organisations and interviewed survivors for their stories of the enduring power of friendship.
“It is a story about the worst and best life has to offer,” Caroline Moorehead said, adding that they were ordinary women – teachers, dentists, secretaries and students – who were united in hatred of the Nazi occupiers. The women distributed anti-Nazi leaflets, carried clandestine messages and hid escaping Jews.
“They didn’t just sit back as an audience and say ‘we do not like being occupied by the Germans’, they got together and distributed subversive newspapers,” Ms Moorehead said. “School girls as young as 15 would write “V” for victory on their school walls.”
As the Resistance grew in strength, the Gestapo started to shoot 100 French for every German killed.
Eventually, the 230 women were hunted down by the Gestapo and imprisoned in a fort just outside Paris. As part of the Germans’ attempt to crack down on political resistance, they decided on a new policy.
“The Germans decided that if people didn’t know where their loved ones were, it would be more frightening,” she said.
And so the women were put in cattle trucks and deported clandestinely to Aushwitz, a destination from which there was no return.
“They were on these trains for three and a half days and all they were given was a piece of sausage, a bit of bread and some water,” Ms Moorehead said.
For the next two years, the women were subject to torture, starvation and slave labour. Only 49 survived.
“They did not die of hunger. They did not die of thirst. They did not die of illnesses. Then what did they die of? They died of horror.”
Ms Moorehead said what kept the 49 survivors alive was their selflessness, enduring support and solid friendship.
She described the experience of survivor Charlotte Delbo, who became so consumed with thirst and started lapping up mud from the marshes around the camp.
“All the other women were thirsty but they decided to pool together their rations, which was virtually nothing, to get her a whole bucket of water,” Ms Moorehead said.
However, when Mr Marr asked Ms Moorehead on whether there was a happy ending, she replied “No. The last chapter is the saddest.”
“When these survivors returned to France, nobody really wanted them,” said Ms Moorehead. “They didn’t want these skeletal ill women in these striped clothes.
“People didn’t want to hear about all the awful things they had seen and had been through. Their past had been put in the shadows.”
There are three survivors alive today, she said.