In 1943, two hundred and thirty women were arrested as members of the French Resistance and sent to Birkenau. Only 49 survived, but this in itself is remarkable. These women were as diverse a group as could be imagined. They were Jews and Christians, aristocrats and working class, young and old. Yet they were united by their commitment to the French Resistance and to one another.(1) In her book A Train in Winter, Caroline Moorhead reconstructs the story of these women through the journals and memoirs of survivors. Noting the mutual dependence that made the difference between living and dying, Moorhead highlights how the solidarity of these women to one another and to their mutual survival sustained them through unspeakable horror and torture.
In many accounts of Holocaust survivors, the hellish conditions of extreme deprivation and torture drove many to hoard whatever meager resources they could save for themselves. And how could they be blamed? Survival became the only goal—no matter what the cost, even to others. Yet, in most of the cases with these French women in Birkenau, their solidarity toward each other trumped the selfishness that engulfed so many others. As Moorhead writes, “Knowing that the fate of each depended on the others… egotism seemed to vanish and that, stripped back to the bare edge of survival, each rose to behavior few would have believed themselves capable of.”(2) Moorhead recounts that when unrelieved thirst threatened to engulf one of their members in utter madness, the women pooled together their own meager rations to get her a whole bucket of water.
Altruism of this magnitude is seldom seen. Putting one’s own needs first is as natural as breathing, and just as unconscious. Yet adversity sometimes coaxes out the best and the most beautiful in human beings.
In the ancient biblical account of Ruth, three women are left widows, and one, Naomi, has lost her sons as well. Bereft of their economic and financial support, the women instinctively stay together even as Naomi insists they return to their homeland of Moab, where the prospect of finding a husband would be more likely. But the women insist on staying. “No, we will surely return with you to your people.”
We moderns miss the significance of this solidarity. In staying with Naomi, the women would forfeit any sense of security. In the ancient Near East, husbands and sons secured a woman’s total wellbeing. Without husband or male heir, women were left to fend for themselves, often forced into prostitution to earn a living. They would not only depend on one another, but would be cast upon the mercy of another land and another people as strangers.
Naomi understands the risks as she laments, “Return, my daughters! Go, for I am too old to have a husband. If I said I have hope if I should even have a husband tonight and also bear sons, would you therefore wait until they were grown? Would you therefore refrain from marrying? No, my daughters; for it is harder for me than for you, for the hand of the Lord has gone forth against me.” One daughter in law, Orpah, finally relents, and after weeping with Ruth and Naomi, returns to her homeland of Moab. But Ruth will not leave. “Do not urge me to leave you or turn back from following you; for where you go, I will go, and where you lodge, I will lodge. Your people shall be my people and your God, my God.”(3) Ruth aligns herself with Naomi—her welfare is Ruth’s welfare—no matter what the cost.
The ancient Hebrew law enforced the care of widows and orphans by the larger community as a sign of solidarity to the weakest and the most vulnerable members and to provide for the most desiccated and desperate among them—just as the women at Birkenau pooled their water rations for the sake of the one who needed it most. Ruth, as a Moabite, was bound by no such law and yet she sees her allegiance to Naomi, nevertheless. Their shared adversity, their shared identity as widows, bound them together and brought about something beautiful.
Ruth wouldn’t ever see how this exceptional act of solidarity would save—not only Naomi—but the people of Israel. She would become the great, great grandmother of King David. Indeed, one would come from David who would also demonstrate solidarity with humanity. So great was his act of altruistic sacrifice that he would “empty himself, taking the form of a servant, and being made in the likeness of men.” This one, would “humble himself by becoming obedient to death, even death on a cross.”(4)
The women of the French Resistance provide a contemporary model of what Ruth demonstrated in ages past, an altruistic solidarity to one another in order to ensure survival. As Christians around the world look for the suffering Jesus during the liturgical season of Lent, and others who seek after him might marvel at the wonder of this mystery: the God proclaimed in the life of Jesus chose to cast his lot with humanity and became one of us. This one walked among humans including the very least of these, and chose to share the horror of human death. Even after the victory of his resurrection from death, this one still bore in his body the wounds of his earthly suffering. For God so loved the world that he gave his only son. This is solidarity for life.
Margaret Manning Shull is member of the writing and speaking team at Ravi Zacharias International Ministries in Bellingham, Washington.
(1) Caroline Weber, “Sisters Unto Death,” New York Times Book Review, November 13, 2011, reviewing A Train in Winter by Caroline Moorehead.
(3) Cf. Ruth 1:6-22.
(4) Philippians 2:5-8.