Camp de Gurs



„Camp de Gurs“ The Gurs camp was one of the first and largest camps established in prewar France. It was located in the Basque region of southwestern France, just to the south of the village of Gurs. The camp, about 50 miles from the Spanish border, was situated in the foothills of the Pyrenees Mountains northwest of Oloron-Sainte-Marie.

The French government established the Gurs camp in April 1939, before war with Germany and well before the occupation of France in June 1940. Originally, Gurs served as a detention camp for political refugees and members of the International Brigade fleeing Spain after the Spanish Civil War.

In early 1940, the French government also interned about 4,000 German Jewish refugees as "enemy aliens," along with French leftist political leaders who opposed the war with Germany. After the French armistice with Germany in June 1940, Gurs fell under the authority of the new collaborationist French government, the Vichy regime.

Conditions in the Gurs camp were very primitive. It was overcrowded and there was a constant shortage of water, food, and clothing. During 1940-1941, 800 detainees died of contagious diseases, including typhoid fever and dysentery.

In October 1940, German authorities deported about 7,500 Jews from southwestern Germany across the border into the unoccupied zone of France. Vichy officials then interned most of them in Gurs. Of this group, 1,710 were eventually released, 755 escaped, 1,940 were able to emigrate, and 2,820 men were conscripted into French labor battalions.

Between August 6, 1942 and March 3, 1943, Vichy officials turned over 3,907 Jewish prisoners from Gurs to the Germans; the Germans sent the majority of them to the Drancy transit camp outside Paris in northern France. From Drancy, they were deported in six convoys to the extermination camps in occupied Poland, primarily Auschwitz.

Vichy authorities closed the Gurs camp in November 1943.

Almost 22,000 prisoners had passed through Gurs, of whom over 18,000 were Jewish. More than 1,100 internees died in the camp. In 1944, Gurs was reopened briefly to intern political prisoners and resistance fighters arrested by Vichy police. After the Allied liberation of France in August 1944, French officials used Gurs to house German prisoners of war and French collaborators. At the end of 1945, officials of the postwar French republic closed the Gurs camp for the last time.

During the interwar period, France was one of the more liberal nations in opening its doors to Jewish refugees from Poland, Romania, and Germany. In 1939, however, the French government imposed restrictions on Jewish immigration and set up internment camps for refugees. When Germany defeated France in June 1940, there were approximately 350,000 Jews in the country. More than half of them were refugees from Germany who had arrived during the 1930s.

France signed an armistice with Germany in June 1940. Under the terms of the armistice, northern France came under direct German occupation; the eastern provinces of Alsace and Lorraine were annexed to Germany. Southern France remained unoccupied and was governed by a French administration under the leadership of Marshal Henri Philippe Petain. The Petain regime had its capital in the town of Vichy. Officially neutral, Vichy France collaborated closely with Germany.

After the defeat of France, the Vichy government promulgated antisemitic legislation, including the "Statut des Juifs" (Law of the Jews) passed in two parts in October 1940 and June 1941. This comprehensive statute excluded Jews from public life; required their dismissal from positions in the civil service, the army, commerce, and industry; and barred them from participation in the professions (including medicine, law, and teaching).

In July 1941, Vichy inaugurated an extensive program of "Aryanization," confiscating Jewish-owned property for the French state. Many Jews were left destitute. Foreign Jews were particularly vulnerable. Thousands of Jews were sent to internment camps, such as Gurs near the Spanish border, where many died. The German authorities also deported 4,000 Jews from Gurs to Auschwitz. Elsewhere in France, other major camps in which (mostly foreign) Jews were interned included Saint-Cyprien, Rivesaltes, Le Vernet, and Les Milles. There were many smaller camps as well.

Preparations for the inclusion of Jews in western Europe in the"Final Solution" began in early 1942. Deportations from France began that summer. French police rounded up Jews, mainly those without French citizenship, in both the occupied and unoccupied (Vichy) zones. In mid-July, 13,000 Jews were seized in Paris and interned for several days in the Velodrome d'Hiver sports arena. Without food or water, they were held until their deportation to Auschwitz. Throughout France, Jews were assembled in camps, loaded onto cattle cars, and sent to the Drancy transit camp northeast of Paris. More than 60 separate transports left Drancy during 1942. Most of these transports went to Auschwitz-Birkenau. Drancy served as the last stop before the journey to Auschwitz for at least 62,000 Jews deported from France.

Thousands of Jews fled to the southeast corner of France after the Italian army occupied territory east of the Rhone River in late 1942. The Italian authorities refused to hand over Jews to the Germans, despite repeated demands. While many Jews in the Italian zone were rounded up by the Germans after September 1943, thousands managed to hide or to escape to Switzerland.

The last deportation from France to Auschwitz took place in August 1944. During the war, over 77,000 Jews deported from France were murdered in Nazi camps. Of these, one-third were French citizens and over 8,000 were children under the age of 13.

More than three-quarters of the Jews who resided or had found refuge in France in 1939 managed to survive. This high survival rate was due to many factors, including dispersal of Jews in many localities, a minimal German police presence, and assistance from some non-Jews.

The Allied landing in Normandy, in northwestern France, on June 6, 1944, began the liberation of France from Vichy and German domination. By the end of 1944, Allied forces had liberated France. To avoid capture, many Vichy officials fled to Germany.

Anton Räderscheidt

Camp de femmes 1940