The Gurs' camp
WHY A CAMP IN GURS ?
The creation of the Gurs Camp followed the defeat of the Spanish republicans by General Franco in January 1939.
When the republicans and the general population crossed the frontier in vast numbers, the French authorities decided to place them in “reception camps”.
The camp could hold up to 20,000 people, making it the 3rd largest town in the Pyrénées-Atlantiques department. Several groups of people were interned in the camp :
– Spanish nationals (spring and summer 1939)
– “Undesirables” (May-July 1940)
– Jews (Oct 1940-Nov 1943)
– Roma (spring 1944)
A camp to take Spanish republicans was built on wasteland belonging to three villages, Gurs, Dognen and Préchacq-Josbaig.
That was the number of cabins laid out in 13 blocks and surrounded by barbed wire.
They were designed to be used in summer, so they provided little protection from the cold or rain.
Around 24,530 Spanish republicans were interned at Gurs. For the most part, they were Basque fighters, airmen and volunteers in the International Brigades. They were young and disciplined.
In spring 1939, camp life was organised around sport and literacy classes, and there was a rich cultural and artistic life.
LIFE IN THE CAMP
In 1940, though the cabins were dilapidated and the camp was almost empty, the French government interned :
– German, Austrian and Polish refugees from the Paris area. A number of the refugees came from the first round-up at the Vélodrome d’Hiver. So it was that on 12 May 1940, the French authorities ordered the assembly of foreign women at the Vel d’Hiv. They were arrested and dispatched to Gurs.
– Frenchwomen from Moselle whose husbands were German or of German origin. These women were suspected by the French authorities of being part of the “Fifth Column”.
– Political prisoners…
Conditions in the camp were extremely precarious.
They got worse in the winter of 1939. The cabins couldn’t withstand bad weather. It was permanently damp.
People were packed together: each intern disposed of a space of only 70 cm.
Mud was a major problem at the Gurs Camp. There weren’t enough drainage ditches and when they filled with water, the area turned to marsh.
THE VICHY REGIME
With the arrival of the Jews in the camp from October 1940 onwards, Gurs became a symbol of the Vichy regime’s anti-semitism.
From 1940 to 1943, 20,000 Jews were interned at Gurs :
– German Jews from Baden, the Palatinate and the Sarre, most of whom were elderly people. Almost 800 died weeks after they arrived.
– Jewish men, women and children transferred from other camps in the Zone Sud.
– Victims of round-ups and police operations.
But why deport Jewish people to Gurs in the South of France? This deportation formed part of Plan Madagascar. The island, a French possession, was chosen by the Nazis as the site of a vast ghetto for the Jews of Central Europe.
The plan was never put into action. In 1942, it was replaced by the “Final Solution”.