On Jan. 24, 1943, 230 French women who had been arrested for resistance activities were put on a train at Compiegne, outside Paris, and sent to Auschwitz. The youngest had just celebrated her 17th birthday; the oldest was 67. They were teachers and seamstresses, students and farmers’ wives; there was a doctor, a dentist and several editors and chemists. They were to be a lesson to other would-be troublemakers.
The women were not Jewish, so they were not sent immediately to be gassed. However, they were subjected to interminable roll calls in arctic conditions, crushingly tough physical labor and the random, ceaseless brutality of the SS guards. Typhus was rife in the camp. There was very little to eat and almost no water to drink. Minor transgressions were punished with excessive savagery.
Even so, 49 of these women lived to return to France in the late spring of 1945. It was an exceptionally high proportion: More than one in five made it through the war in a camp in which death was virtually inevitable.
The fact that the women were not Jewish but deportees politiques, or resisters, was important to their survival, but not as much, those who lived would later say, as luck. Luck governed life and death in Auschwitz: the luck not to catch typhus, not to lose your shoes (being barefoot in below-freezing winter temperatures meant certain death), not to fall and attract the attention of the guards and their whips, not to be mauled by the SS dogs.
But there was another characteristic shared by these French women that played a critical part in their survival: their commitment to a cause.
One hundred nineteen of the women were communists, supporters of Leon Blum’s prewar Popular Front. Many of them had spent the 1930s protesting fascism in Spain and Italy and against the Nazis in Germany. They had assisted refugees fleeing into France. Together, they had been to meetings and dreamed of a fairer, more equal world. Others fought hard against the German occupiers and their Vichy collaborators as Gaullists, or they fought simply out of personal convictions so strong that to do nothing was impossible.
As a group, they were committed and accustomed to fighting for their beliefs, even if they were unpopular. This was particularly true for the communist women, who had spent the two years after the signing of the German-Soviet nonaggression pact in August 1939 as pariahs, driven to conduct their battles underground. The courage all these women carried with them to Auschwitz — their determination to survive in order to bear witness to the atrocities of the extermination camps — had been shaped long before, as they helped to print and distribute anti-Nazi posters and newspapers, ferried Jews to safety across the demarcation line into unoccupied France or carried weapons in the baskets of their bicycles.
When I began research for a book about the women in 2009, six of the 230 were still alive. They were formidable and humorous, daunting in their toughness and fortitude, and it was impossible not to wonder which of us would have behaved so bravely in similar circumstances.
“It was different for us,” one of the women, Madeleine, told me. “We weren’t victims; we knew what we were risking. It gave us a strength, a desire to live, to see a better postwar world. It kept our spirits strong.”
More than half of those who survived had been the most politically disciplined and committed before the war. Like Madeleine, Cecile, another survivor — a robust, outspoken Breton in her late 80s — was an active communist. She told me that when she was forced to go into hiding in Paris because the Gestapo was closing in on her, she had asked her mother to look after her 11-year-old daughter. “How can you do this,” her mother had said, “when you have a child?” “It is precisely because I have a child,” Cecile replied, “that I am doing it. I do not want her to grow up in a world of German occupiers and French collaborators.”
And there was something else that defined these women: They were unusually close friends. Held together in a fort outside Paris, they had looked after one another, shared food and stories, comforted those whose husbands were shot, watched over the younger and cared for the older. And it was as friends that they faced, together, month after month, experiences that lay at the very outer limits of human endurance. It was a luxury not afforded many of the inmates of the Nazi camps.
None had known, in the early years of the German occupation, what might happen to resisters. Their courage was that of ordinary people, outraged by events and behavior that seemed to them too repugnant to endure, and it is something of this spirit and passion that drives the Arab Spring today, with its belief that there is a better world that can, and must, be fought for, whatever the personal danger.
Would the women have been so brave, so heedless of their own safety, had they known what they risked?
Probably not. There were many mothers of young children among them, and they would surely not have left them in such a way. But, finding themselves in a situation of extreme adversity, they did what fighters and believers do: They held themselves together, helped their friends, resisted their oppressors, planned for a better world. It was a cast of mind, the strength that comes with moral clarity and the commitment to a cause, an utter determination not to be defeated, that brought so many home.
• Moorehead’s book, “A Train in Winter: An Extraordinary Story of Women, Friendship and Resistance in Occupied France,” is out this month.