Yesterday, we visited one of the Ariège’s best kept – and most shameful – secrets, the museum commemorating the concentration camp at Le Vernet.
Starting in 1939, after the defeat of the Spanish Republic, the concentration camp at Le Vernet, near Pamiers, was used to detain the 12,000 Spanish combatants from the Durruti Division. At the declaration of war, ‘undesirable’ foreigners, anti-fascist intellectuals and members of the International Brigades were interned at Le Vernet under terrible conditions, described by the writer Arthur Koestler (himself interned there) in ‘Scum of the Earth’. In 1940 it became a repressive camp for interning all foreigners considered suspect or dangerous to the public order. At the time, it was known as ‘The French Dachau’.
From 1942 it served also as a transit camp for Jews arrested in the region. In June 1944, the last internees were evacuated and deported to Dachau in the ‘Ghost Train.’ In total about 40,000 people of 58 nationalities were interned in the camp.
We were shown round by the Mayor of le Vernet. He has a passion for sharing this dreadful part of French history which only someone whose family has suffered its consequences could have. He showed us the models of a vast camp, now totally obliterated, and the cramped dormitories.
He described the harsh conditions, when inadequately clothed and severely underfed men would have to stand outside, immobile, 4 times a day, during the extremely hard winters, for roll-call.
As a tiny baby, he was interned with his mother, a Spanish refugee, at a women’s and children’s camp, flimsily built and harshly managed, on the coast (Le Vernet was for men only). The women begged for clothing – their own was so flea-ridden it had to be burnt – and more food. The response was that they could return to Spain if they wanted. Some did, but many stayed.
As an adult, with a French wife and children, he wanted to take French nationality himself. ‘How did you arrive in France?’ ‘Via the concentration camp in Argelès.’ ‘There were no concentration camps in France, only accommodation centres.’ Such denial existed till quite recently – hence the total destruction of the site of this camp, the most repressive in France. Now however, largely because of people such as this mayor, the history of these camps, run and organized not by the Nazis, but by the French themselves, is at last being told.
12 thoughts on “The concentration camp at le Vernet”
Hiya Margaret once again thanks for you postings. We visited the cemetery at Le Vernet some time ago and was amazed by the number of nationalities present at the time. I had no idea that there was a museum though I must go again.
Check it’s open first! It was actually closed the day we went, but the mayor saw us and opened up specially
Thanks for that report, Margaret. I think I saw a documentary recently that included that camp. I remember talking to our dorm custodian in Pau about their experiences during the occupation. Tales of brutality when the Germans pulled back.
I’ve had similar tours in small towns in Germany — synagogues no longer used, stories of work camps nearby, tales of how the locals acted during the deportation period. It all comes alive in vivid detail when you look at it on a small scale and try to imagine the horor of the victims, often neighbors.
And it’s extraordinary how long the memories of those times are for some. As Kalba’s comment says, those war time days which in some cases set neighbour against neighbour in the community where she lives, are still not forgotten
I’m in the middle of reading a book that you might enjoy (I use that word advisedly!), Margaret – Love and War in the Pyrenees, by Rosemary Bailey. It focuses on the war years (Spanish Civil and WW2) in Pyrénées Orientales, where she’s lived for a long time and has done a lot of informal research by talking to local people, which gives it a very dynamic quality. So it’s informative, and harrowing, but also a gripping read.
More difficult reading but still worth every centime is France – The Dark Years by Julian Jackson, which was one of the first books to really shine light on France’s shameful WW2 past. As you say, it IS beginning to be talked about here – to a degree, and only to a degree, though. For many ordinary people, like those living in my village of Rimont, it’s still just too painful.
Thanks. Both books will go on the reading list
What a moving post. A couple of years ago I was talking to a WWII researcher who told me that unlike the situation in other French towns he was not able to take away copied documents from the Hotel de Ville in Toulouse. War history still seems very difficult in this part of France. We did a walk following a Maquis trail the “highlight” of wich was a very low key memorial to the resistance which I have to confess I left in tears having read the comments left by elderly French visitors. The walk was uninspiring but worth the effort. It is experiences such as this which makes me wonder what it is in human nature that prevents us from learning form the past.
Indeed. As it happened, the next day I read a posting about an anti-fascist campaigner in the East End which you might enjoy:
Inhumanity knows no frontiers. Stanley Milgram (1963), US Psychologist and Jew, thought it might just be a German trait when he did his first important research but he soon realised that there is an element of this brutality in more of us than we care to admit. Thanks for sharing this with us Margaret.
Yes. This and similar research is deply unsettling. We all like to think we’d stand up for what we believe in, but most of us haven’t really been put to the test, I guess
Given your interest in the camp at Le Vernet, I thought you might like to hear of something I just discovered on the Internet. My late father-in-law was interned at Le Vernet before being shipped off to the Auschwitz slave camps where he only survived by the greatest good fortune. I have just found that there is a long video interview with him available from the Holocaust Museum website in which he describes his experiences in Le Vernet (in the first video). Be patient with the videos, they are not well edited and there is some kind of test tone for a minute or two at the start. I think he may be mistaken about some details (e.g. were the majority of the Spanish at Le Vernet anarchists or communists) but that is clearly beside the point. I would be very interested to learn more about the Spanish prisoners at Le Vernet. If anyone can recommend any good sources I would be very grateful (I have read Rosemary Bailey’s book).
Best wishes P
Thanks so much for that . You’ll have gathered from this post that the mayor of Le Vernet is Spanish in origin and he has a real interest in the subjects treated in his museum. Unfortunately he doesn’t speak English. But it may be worth contacting him at email@example.com. I don’t know if you have any knowlewdge of the camp at Rivesaltes near Perpignan, which I have yet to visit. It’s certainly got a lot of Spanish history surrounding it:http://www.cg66.fr/52-le-memorial-de-rivesaltes.htm
Because the video you’ve kindly given me a link to is long, I haven’t yet watched it: I want to give it my full attention. Thank you. Your family must be glad to have this memory of him recorded.
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