France’s defeat at the hands of Germany in May 1940 was to usher in one of the most controversial chapters in modern French history.  Under the conditions of the armistice with Nazi Germany, the country was divided into two, the northern and western parts of the country directly under German control, and the southern part under the leadership of the Vichy regime.  To this day the culpability of the people and government of France for the actions of the collaborationist Vichy regime are hotly debated.  For decades the French generally preferred to think of the actions undertaken by the French police and many civilians during the war years as isolated and rare acts of betrayal, or as actions taken under duress.  However, the story of the Drancy internment camp, the largest transit camp set up in France, belies this narrative.

The complex was originally constructed as a low-income housing project.  After France’s armistice with Germany, however, the site – located in the north-eastern Paris suburb of Drancy – was to acquire a more sinister purpose.  In August 1941 more than 4,000 Jewish men were picked up in the streets of Paris by the French police and brought here, to be held in a space originally intended to house several hundred.  They were to be the first of the up to 70,000 prisoners, mostly Jews, held here temporarily.

The camp was administered by French police commanders from 21 August 1941 to 1 July 1943, when SS officers took direct command.  Harsh as living conditions had been before, with the start of Nazi control things worsened considerably.  The camp entered a period marked by a severe deterioration of the inmates’ conditions and an intensive effort to deport ever larger numbers of Jews to the east.  As the population grew, including prisoners from many nations and all ages, life became increasingly intolerable, marked by the

filth of a coal mine.  Straw mattresses full of lice and bedbugs.  Horrid overcrowding.  Eighty six women, six water faucets, you don’t have time to wash.  There are paralysed women, women who have had breast operations and can’t move their arms, pregnant women, blind women, deaf mutes, women on stretchers, women who have left their small children all alone.

Despite its horrors, Drancy was noted for its solidarity and for the spirited resistance among the inmates.  Between 1941 and 1943, there were 41 successful escape attempts, and an untold number of unsuccessful attempts.  There was also limited contact with the outside world, as non-Jewish French citizens would travel to the camp to visit friends or bring goods.  Among others, a young Simone de Beauvoir remembers gazing through the barbed wire fence to find a childhood friend who had disappeared suddenly.  Although there is little information about music and musicians per se, there was generally a wide variety of cultural activities, including concerts and literary evenings. These were attended by many of the luminaries of French Jewish life, including the poet Max Jacob and the choreographer René Blum.  None of these were to see liberation.

The Americans officially liberated Paris on 25 August 1944, by which time there were only around 1,500 prisoners left alive.

Sources

1990. Encyclopedia of the Holocaust, New York: Macmillan Pub. Co.  

Felstiner, M., 1987. Commandant of Drancy: Alois Brunner and the Jews of France. Holocaust and Genocide Studies, 2(1), 21-47.  

Marrus, M.R. & Paxton, R., 1981. Vichy France and the Jews, New York.  

Zuccotti, S., 1993. The Holocaust, the French and the Jews, New York: Basic Books.  

1990. Encyclopedia of the Holocaust, New York: Macmillan Pub. Co.