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Internment camps of South West France 1939-1944
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It all began in February 1939 with the fall of Republican Spain. Something like half a million men, women and children arrived at the French border, from high in the Pyrenees right down to the coast of the Mediterranean in the space of a few days and nights. France was totally unprepared for this influx, and at first the borders were closed. But it soon became obvious that this mass of humanity, hungry, cold, sick and injured, would have to be admitted , at least for a while until some permanent solution could be found. The greater number, who had arrived at the border crossings near the coast, were shepherded down to the beaches and enclosed with barbed wire. The first camp was at Argeles-sur-Mer, and others followed along the coast at St Cyprien, Canet Plage and Barcares. Many of the military refugees were taken to other camps further inland, at Bram in the Aude (near Carcassonne), and at Gurs in the Haut Pyrenees near the small town of Oloron Sainte Marie.
Even before this time, there had been a steady stream of asylum seekers from Nazi Germany finding there way to this region. These were mostly, though not exclusively, Jewish refugees. Most of these were not interned at this time, but caused more problems of accommodation and food supplies.
However, the French government identified several hundred men who they regarded as “undesirable”, and these were incarcerated in a camp hastily built to receive them at Le Vernet in the Ariege, some distance south of Toulouse. This camp quickly took on a punitive role, and anyone not submitting quietly to the harsh conditions in the other camps soon found themselves in this camp which was more of a concentration camp or prison than any of the other centres.
The declaration of war in September brought more refugees, and then the invasion of the low countries by the German forced in the early summer of 1940 started a torrent of refugees streaming south.
By this time, the authorities had opened a former army camp near the town of Rivesaltes, called Camp Joffre, and many of the Spanish women and children in the Argeles camp were transferred there. With the fall of France in June 1940, the country was partitioned. The northern part of France together with the Atlantic coast was under German occupation, the smaller southern region was officially self-governing with a capital in the spa town of Vichy in the Allier department. One of the first problems the Vichy government had to deal with was the arrival of about 7,500 Jews on their northern border. These unfortunate people had been expelled from their homes in the Baden and Palatinate regions of Germany and dumped on the already hard-pressed Vichy government. The response of Vichy was to send all these now stateless people to the already crowded new camp at Gurs. So Gurs was now a mixed camp of Spanish republican soldiers and German Jewish families.
Finally, in 1942, all Jews found in the so-called “free zone” of the south were rounded up, and after being held in temporary camps, were then concentrated in the camp at Rivesaltes, which was now overcrowded by Spanish, Jewish and Gypsy families.