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Gurs Internment Camp
Gurs Internment Camp
|Location 43°15′53″N 0°43′54″W|
|Open to visitors yes|
|Need appointment no|
|Handicap accessibility no|
|Geographical Coordinates 43.26592,-0.73025|
Camp Gurs was an internment and refugee camp constructed in 1939 in Gurs, a town in southwestern France near Pau. The camp was originally set up by the French government after the fall of Catalonia at the end of the Spanish Civil War to control those who fled Spain out of fear of retaliation from Francisco Franco's regime. At the start of World War II, the French government interned Germans and citizens of other Axis Powers, as well as French nationals who were considered to have dangerous political ideas or who were imprisoned for ordinary crimes.
After the Vichy government signed an armistice with the Nazis in 1940, it became an Internment camp for Jews of any nationality except French, as well as people considered dangerous by the government. After France's liberation, Gurs housed German prisoners of war and French collaborators. Before its final closure in 1946, the camp also held former Spanish Republican fighters who participated in the Resistance against the German occupation, because their decided will to end the fascist dictatorship imposed by Franco made them threatening in the eyes of the Allies.
History and time period
Jews deported from Baden:
The most painful period in the camp's history began in October 1940. The Nazi Gauleiter ("governor") from the Baden region of Germany had also been named Gauleiter of the neighboring French region of Alsace. In Baden resided some 7,500 Jews; they were mainly women, children, and the elderly, given that the young and middle-aged men had fled from Germany or had disappeared in the Nazi concentration camps.
The Gauleiter received word that the camp at Gurs was mostly empty, and on October 25, 1940, it was decided to evacuate the Jews from Baden (between 6,500 and 7,500) to Gurs as part of Operation Wagner-Bürckel. There, they remained locked up under French administration. The living conditions were even more difficult, and during the year that they remained in the camp, more than a thousand fell victim to illness, especially typhus and dysentery. Of the survivors, some 700 managed to escape and almost 2,000 obtained visas that permitted them to emigrate. The rest, numbering several thousand, remained in the camp, and males in the best physical condition were imprisoned in French work gangs. The deportation of the German Jews to Gurs in October 1940 is a unique case in the history of the Holocaust. On one hand, it deals with the only deportation of Jews carried out toward the west of Germany by the Nazi regime. On the other hand, the Wannsee conference in which the above mentioned extermination program was delineated, did not take place until January 1942. Precise information on the motive of this deportation have not been found. There only exists the suspicion that it could have involved setting into motion the Madagascar Plan, an initiative of Adolf Eichmann designed to transport the entire Jewish population of Europe to the island of that name. If this was the case, this deportation would be the only known attempt to carry this plan forward. The protests of the French government avoided subsequent actions in this direction.
Aid Organizations: Beginning December 20, 1940, various humanitarian aid organizations intervened to lend their services: in addition to the Basque government in exile, posts were set up in Gurs belonging to the Swiss Humanitarian Aid Unit, Jewish French organizations tolerated by the Vichy regime, and Protestant organizations such as the Quakers, CIMADE, and the YMCA. Despite the fact that the camp was situated in a region where the great majority of the population was Catholic, not one Catholic organization offered its help to the inmates. On February 15, 1941, the Oeuvre de Secours aux Enfants (Children’s Aid Society) installed a medical post and obtained permission to take numerous children away from Gurs, who would be housed in private homes throughout France.
Daily Conditions: Security infrastructure in the camp was not as developed as many of its more eastern counterparts. However, inhabitants who were poorly dressed, lacking money and were without knowledge of local dialects were quickly located and returned to the camp. Reclaimed prisoners were subsequently held for a time as punishment in an îlot called de los represaliados (of those suffering reprisals). In case of recidivism, they were sent to another camp. But an internee who could count on outside help could successfully escape, whether to Spain or a shelter on a flat in France. There were 755 who managed to escape. Deportations to the East: Once the program for the eradication of the Jews was put into motion in the camps in German occupied Poland, the Vichy regime turned over the 5,500 Jews who were located in Gurs to the Nazis. On July 18, 1942, the SS captain, Theodor Dannecker, inspected the camp and then ordered that they prepare themselves to be transported to Eastern Europe. Beginning on August 6, they were sent in convoys to the Drancy deportation camp, on the outskirts of Paris, and later many were murdered in extermination camps. The majority of them were sent to Auschwitz.
Liberated France: Upon the withdrawal of the Germans from the region due to the advance of the Allied invasion of France, the French who took charge of Gurs locked up their countrymen accused of collaborating with the German occupiers as well as Spaniards, who having found refuge in France, had been fighting in the French Resistance against the German occupation. These men were not trying to enter into an armed conflict on the French-Spanish border and were not interested in confronting Franco, but the French feared they might and so held these Spaniards in Gurs for a short time. The camp also briefly housed German prisoners of war. Dismantling: The camp was dismantled in 1946, and fell into obscurity. The hill has since been covered in dense vegetation that still does not manage to absorb the water that flows from the clay soil. One can see a few stones that were paths and the bases of cabins. Groups of volunteers have begun to remove the overgrown weeds to expose the misery in which some 64,000 people were forced to live during the various époques of the camp.
Camp Gurs today:
In 1979, on the 40th anniversary of the creation of the camp, the region's youth started to air the forgotten history of the camp by inviting old inmates to conferences and lectures. The event was well-publicized by the French, German, and Spanish press; as a result, the next year there was a reunion at Gurs on June 20—21. The reunion drew a hundred former detainees, who came from many different countries. Also in attendance were people associated with the French resistance and survivors of the Nazi death camps. Together, these people created an organization called L'Amicale de Gurs. This organization developed an official newsletter called L'Apell de Gurs, which was full of emphatic catchphrases such as, "Gurs, a symbol of combat and the suffering of the peoples of Europe," and "Gurs, a concentration camp, calls for vigilance, for unity, and for action; actions taken so that man can live in freedom and dignity." Since this date, a commemorative ceremony has been held annually. Some of the main participants in this ceremony have been Jewish organizations, representatives of citizens of Baden, former exiles, their relatives, and people of diverse nationalities who, by their presence, hope to point out the duty of every generation to remember the criminal acts of the dictatorial regimes that assaulted Europe during the 20th century.
Current State: Today the camp contains a reconstruction of a triangular cabin as a testimony to the hundreds of identical cabins that were lived in by the inmates. Like the original cabins, the reconstruction was made from thin slabs of wood covered in tarred cardboard. A few monuments recall the camp of the Gursiens, a name that was first used by the inhabitants of nearby towns to refer to the inmates and that was ultimately adopted by the inmates themselves.
Cemetery: The thick vegetation that covers the area occupied by the Gurs ilots contrasts sharply with the tranquility of the large Jewish cemetery, which is paid for and exquisitely maintained by the governments of German cities that once deported their German-Jewish populations.
After the liberation in 1944, The French Association of Jewish communities of the Basses-Pyrénées took charge of Gurs' upkeep and erected a monument to the camp's victims. As the years passed, though, the cemetery itself fell into disrepair. Hearing of this disrepair, the mayor of Karlsruhe in 1957 took the initiative to have his city assume responsibility for the conservation of the camp, supported by the Jewish associations of Baden. He got in touch with the parts of Baden that had deported their Jewish citizens to Gurs so that they could participate in the project. The French state, for its part, gave the federation of Jewish organizations of Baden the right to control the cemetery for the next 99 years. The German cities of Karlsruhe, Freiburg, Mannheim, Heidelberg, Pforzheim, Konstanz and Weinheim now pay the economic costs of the cemetery's upkeep. Since the year 1985, the camp has had a memorial to the fighters of the Spanish Civil War who were interned in the camp; the camp's cemetery has a section set aside for the members of this group who have died. In the year 2000, the German War Graves Commission performed major renovations on this cemetery.