But there was another route, unmarked, long taken in this region. That was the route of the segregated and unwanted, a path walked from 1939 until 1979, but only now to be commemorated by a memorial and education centre. This was the ugly path that led to southern France’s internment camps.
The memorial, scheduled for completion in three years, will stand at the camp outside Rivesaltes, a place that already draws visitors who come to pay homage to the persecution faced by those who were considered undesirable: Spanish Republican families and International Brigades fleeing Franco at the end of the Spanish Civil War; foreign Jews rounded up by the Vichy French government; Roma, or Gypsy, families; Algerians who fought alongside the French during the French-Algerian war; and others.
Next year, builders will break ground on the memorial, designed by the architect Rudy Ricciotti. It is being planned with an eye to the symbolic: four 50-year-old acacia trees will be planted, honouring the four main populations interned in the camps. There will be stark spaces — including a long, sombre concrete corridor to “inspire silence,” according to the designers. Exhibition and learning annexes will be built in what was known as “Ilot F,” or Camp F. Outside, the architect will let crumbling barracks stand as silent witnesses.
The project is being led by the regional government and is also supported by groups like the Fondation pour la Mémoire de la Shoah in Paris, the International Red Cross and Red Crescent Museum in Geneva and the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington
It is a large project. Its price tag, projected at more than 18 million euros, or $26 million, has been hotly debated in the French press. “Is it necessary to put 20 million Euros into the memorial of Rivesaltes?” asked the local newspaper La Semaine du Roussillon in January.
Meanwhile, visitors continue to drift to the site, pulling off the A9 autoroute between Perpignan and Rivesaltes, following the signs to the camp and turning on to the tiny Route d’Opoul, where modern windmills barely turn in still, hot air. The paved road quickly becomes a dirt track. At a turn in the road, steles of stone, festooned with plastic flowers and flags and small marble carved plaques are dedicated to those who were corralled into the barracks that stand on this dusty, inhospitable plain.
The barracks of Rivesaltes were originally built in the late 1930s to house the French army. But their purpose quickly shifted.
When Barcelona fell at the end of the Spanish Civil War, “you had a massive immigration to France,” said Jean-Marc Dreyfus, a historian who was recently named lecturer in Holocaust Studies at the University of Manchester in Britain “At least 500,000 people arrived; it was an exodus. And France did not have a generous immigration policy at this time.” The camps were built both to shelter the people, said Mr. Dreyfus, and to isolate political activists.
The conditions were terrible. For two years, thousands lived in unprotected tent cities surrounded by barbed wire on the nearby beach at Argelès-Plage, now a resort town.
Rumbling down the dirt road to the camp, you see the 70-year-old barracks stretch in all directions. The effect is both humbling and overwhelming: a bleak vista of ruined cement shelters, crumbling more each day. But the numbers on barracks walls are still visible. Rusted barbed wire is coiled on the ground; bullet casings nestle in the dirt. The latrines, cement block structures, remain — sturdy, ominous sentries.
Today, large posters detailing the history of the place stand at the entrance to Camp F, a site of 104 acres purchased from the French Army by the Pyrénées-Orientales department with an eye to building the memorial, the first of its kind in the south of France.
Meeting the director of the project, Marianne Petit, on the site on a hot summer day, I was joined by Jacques Lavergne, a filmmaker, who was scouting sites for a project commemorating the persecution of the Gypsies.
From 1939 to 1940, the Vichy regime began putting “enemy aliens” in these camps, alongside Spanish Republicans. These aliens were a polyglot assemblage of Jews and others who had fled the Nazis, and antifascist veterans of the Spanish Civil War. Hundreds of foreign-born Jews in the southern “free” zone were sent to the camps. So-called “a-socials” — homeless people and Gypsies — were imprisoned as well.
By July of 1941, French Jewish activists and Red Cross officials visiting Rivesaltes and other camps were revolted by the conditions.
There were rats, lice, a contaminated water supply — and death. Jewish groups desperately attempted — sometimes successfully — to pull children from the camps. Some were spirited out by the American Friends Service Committee, the Quaker organization.
Then, in June 1942, France agreed to send foreign Jews from Rivesaltes and the other French camps to Eastern Europe.“In August they emptied the camps directly to Drancy [the transit camp outside of Paris]. From there they were sent to Auschwitz,” said Mr. Dreyfus. “The camps were not built for preparation of the final solution. But at the end they were an important tool of the deportation. Not often in Europe could the Nazis get Jews from a territory they did not occupy!”
Historians and Holocaust experts say it is crucial to protect sites like the Rivesaltes internment camp. “We are at an absolutely critical moment,” said Paul Shapiro, director of the Centre for Advanced Holocaust Studies at the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum. Until now, he said, “we have relied on the presence of survivors and eye witnesses to keep this memory alive.”
In June the Task Force for International Cooperation on Holocaust Education, Remembrance and Research urged its member countries to preserve the “physical locations where Holocaust-related events occurred.”
And yet at Rivesaltes, the history of suffering continued beyond the war, thus the memorial is not just dedicated to one population. And that makes its history complicated.
Starting around the mid-1940s, Rivesaltes housed German prisoners of war. Then in 1962, more than 30,000 Algerians were sent to the camp, families of those who fought alongside the French in the French-Algerian war. It wasn’t an internment camp anymore, but neither was it welcoming. These immigrants, called harkis, were doubly punished — unable to return to Algeria, yet unwelcome in French society.
But by 1992, when Roger Cohen, a New York Times correspondent, visited the camp, there were no markers at all. “No sign identifies the place or commemorates what happened here, as if its lack were a token of a collective will to forget,” he wrote.
This attitude began to change in the late 1990s. Talk of tearing down the camp was met with protests. Books like “La France des Camps,” by Denis Peschanski, a director of the memorial project, placed Rivesaltes in context.
Events have begun to be organized, like a conference held last month that brought together art and music and experts on the four groups of internees and an exhibition by the photographer Gérard Cambon.
The organizers of the memorial at Rivesaltes are taking pains to honour everyone who passed through these strange and terrible fields.
The New York Times
October 14, 2007