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Camps in France (essay)

Dr Pnina Rosenberg
Art Curator, Beit Lohamei Haghetaot


After its defeat in the Second World War, France was divided by the Demarcation Line into the Unoccupied Zone and the Occupied Zone. Common to both zones, however, were the transit camps and concentration camps set up for various population groups - Jews, Germans, Austrians, Russians, French, and others - who were all designated as "undesirables" by the Nazi occupying regime and Vichy.

During the 1920s, because of a labor shortage, it had been French policy to encourage immigration. However, the economic crisis of the 1930s meant that the immigrants were seen as a threat both economically and culturally. More stringent immigration laws were passed in 1938, as well as laws which increased control over foreigners already living in France and allowed border authorities to deport them. When illegal immigrants could not return to their own countries, such as refugees from Nazi Germany, legislation was passed enabling the Ministry of Interior to intern them. In the turmoil of the war the laws concerning foreigners were tightened and, in order to "purify" the state from the "undesirables," it was decided to imprison them together under guard. From this the entire network of the various types of camps developed.

The first French camps were set up in the south of the country during the end of the Third Republic, in February 1939. Their purpose was to take in the refugees from the Spanish Civil War and the fighters of the "International Brigade" who fled from Spain, seeking refuge in the land of the rights of man, a sister-republic. The stream of refugees that flooded France in early 1939 gave the government the opportunity to enforce the newly-passed laws on the control and oppression of foreigners. The refugees from Spain were sent to hastily erected camps run by the army in the South of France - Rieucros, Le Vernet, Saint Cyprien and Gurs. The principles for interning inmates in the various camps determined the method used from then on. Each camp was to take one particular group, which was isolated from the rest of the population. The camps, surrounded by barbed wire fences, were characterized by their crowded conditions, appalling sanitary facilities and lack of basic necessities.

With France's entry into the war in September 1939, another category of inmates was created - "enemy aliens." All men born in Germany or Austria between the ages of 17-50 were commanded to report to a selection center, from where they were sent to the camps in the South of France. As the war progressed, from the German invasion in May 1940 to the cease-fire agreement in June 1940, the net was cast further afield to include women and men between the ages of 17-65. Refugees and immigrants from Belgium were also interred in the camps after Germany invaded Belgium.

Spanish, German and Austrian immigrants and refugees were held in the camps in the South of France, together with other nationals. They included artists and leftwing intellectuals who had fled during Hitler's rise to power, seeing France as their second home, or as a transit station where they could wait for immigration permits to another country (mostly the United States). The absurdity was that the same people who had been persecuted by the Nazis because of their race, faith or ideology, and had fled from Germany, were now identified with their mother country and designated "undesirables."

The Camps under the Vichy Regime

The Vichy regime did not see the defeat of June 1940 as the consequence of political and military mistakes but as the result of a degenerate society which had lost its French culture. The main culprits were "anti-French" groups - communists, Jews, freemasons and foreigners. To rectify the situation it was essential to fight against the symptoms of this disease, i.e. to get rid of the negative elements and to strengthen the healthy - by emphasizing the traditional elements of work, nation and family. The camps, therefore, were a fundamentally important component in the philosophy of the new regime, as they provided a place where all social elements who could not be re-educated and were the root of all evil, could be sent.

A series of laws passed during the summer and fall of 1940 strengthened the need for the camps. These laws aimed to remove foreigners from French society. On 3 September 1940 it became legal to arrest and imprison all dangerous foreigners for the sake of national security and public order. On 4 October, with the publication of the law on the "Status of Jews," it became legal for local authorities to arrest foreign Jews and inter them in special camps as "foreigners of the Jewish race."[1] Thus the Vichy regime continued the camp policy of the end of the Third Republic.

The camps in the Unoccupied Zone were run by the War Office until November 1940, when they were transferred to the Ministry of Interior. The camp administrators were French and they appointed heads of barracks from among the inmates. Living conditions were appalling, with no sanitation facilities and "the nourishment provided [...] was just sufficient to keep a man alive, in a state of permanent, aching, stomach-burning hunger, with constant day-dreams of food."[2] In addition to the severe physical deprivation, the inmates, most of whom were foreign Jews, also suffered terribly from the fact that they had been betrayed by the very society in which they had placed their trust.

Camps in the Occupied Zone

    The French government has undertaken to send all foreign-born Jews to concentration camps in the Unoccupied Zone. So far 45,000 Jews have been arrested. French Jews [...] will be arrested in the Occupied Zone in a similar way, the moment the necessary camps are ready.

Thus wrote Rudolph Schleier, the German Consul General, in a report to Berlin.[3] And indeed the "necessary camps" were in action from 1941 in the Occupied Zone. From the beginning they were meant for foreign and French-born Jews who were the victims of the massive arrests and round-ups in Paris. Most of the inmates shared a common fate with the inmates of the camps in the Unoccupied Zone, with many of them being deported to the extermination camps of eastern Europe.

Life worsened for Jews in the Occupied Zone from as early as 27 September 1940, from the moment they were defined according to the laws of race. Jews who had fled to the South were forbidden to return and their property was confiscated. Those who remained had to have their identification papers stamped with the word "Jew." One decree forced all Jewish businessmen to turn their businesses over to trustees, while another forbade Jews to work in the civil service, or in professions such as journalism, teaching, medicine, theatre or law. Later they were forbidden to be out of their homes in the evenings or to do shopping, except between 3 and 4 o'clock in the afternoon (by which time most of the shops had run out of food). Furthermore, they were not allowed to enter public places, such as the cinema or the theatre.[4] In addition to these laws and measures, the Jews, along with the freemasons, communists and Bolsheviks, became the target of vicious propaganda which paved the way for their internment in the camps.

The feeling of crisis among French Jewry - the "Israelites" - was intense and painful. Most considered themselves first and foremost as French citizens and secondly as Jews, yet, because of their religion, they were subjected to the same restrictions and imprisonment as the foreign Jews. The French Jews from the Occupied Zone were interned for the most part in four main camps - Pithiviers, Beaune-la-Rolande, Compiègne and Drancy.

Divided France ceased to exist in November 1942, when the German forces invaded the Unoccupied Zone. The population of the camps in the South of France dwindled, primarily because of the mass deportations to the camps in the North, and from there, to Eastern Europe.

Dr Pnina Rosenberg, Art Curator, Beit Lohamei Haghetaot

[1] Ann Grynberg. Les camps de la honte: les internes juifs des camps français 1939-1944. La Découverte, Paris, 1991, pp.93-94

[2] Arthur Koestler. Scum of the Earth. Victor Golancz, London, 1941, p.103

[3] Les camps de la honte p.135

[4] For further details see Michael Marrus and Robert O. Paxton. Vichy France and the Jews Basic Books, New York, 1981, pp.3-14. The official form of the German and French laws appears in Les juifs sous l'occupation: Recueil des textes officiels Français et allemands 1940-1944. Centre de Documentation Juive Contemporaine, Paris, 1982, pp.15-19,23-25,139,161-162