Gurs

Originally established as an internment centre for refugees from the Spanish civil war, the Gurs concentration camp was located in an isolated south-western corner of unoccupied France.  With the French defeat by the Nazis, it became the largest internment camp for foreign Jews in the unoccupied zone.  The many hundreds of Jewish men, women and children who died here of hunger, disease and abuse were the first victims of the Holocaust in France, killed by French rather than German cruelty. Their numbers, however, were dwarfed by the many thousands of prisoners deported from here either directly to their deaths, or to the ‘waiting room for Auschwitz’, the transit camp Drancy.

Date: 1940 - 1941
View of the Gurs transit camp from the camp water tower, 1940-1941. USHMM (03100), courtesy of Hanna Meyer-Moses.

When Franco declared himself the dictator of Spain in 1939, many anti-fascists fled across the Pyrenees to France. Once there, these ‘aliens’ were held in the hastily erected camp Gurs, as well as at several other such holding camps.  In total, many thousands of Spaniards were held there before the armistice with Germany was to radically remake the character of the camp.  In 1940 Gurs was cleared of its original Spanish political prisoners and readied for shipments of Jews from France, and especially for Jews expelled from Germany and Bohemia.  For almost all of these Jewish prisoners, Gurs was to be the first stage of a journey to Drancy, and then on to Auschwitz.

Women prisoners in the Gurs transit camp, 1942-3. This photograph was shot secretly by Alice Resch-Synnestvedt during her stay in Gurs as a delegate of the American Friends Service Committee. USHMM (03423), courtesy of Hanna Meyer-Moses.

For much of its existence, the camp housed more women than men, as well as many children and elderly people: frequently women and children would be sent here while able-bodied men were shipped to different camps for forced labour. Of the over 21,000 people who passed through Gurs between October 1940 and its closure in November 1943, 1,700 were released, 755 escaped, and about 1,500 successfully emigrated.

Despite the inhospitable living conditions, a rich cultural life and support network is said to have developed amongst Gurs inmates.  Prisoners were intermittently allowed to receive the aid of French, Protestant and Jewish relief organisations, which distributed extra supplies, and helped to organise emigration from France.  Temporary schools were established, as was a small library, and a theatre group and orchestra.  Records have survived of officially-sanctioned art exhibits of works by prisoners, and of theatrical revues featuring Yiddish songs.

Sources

Rovit, R., 2005. Cultural Ghettoization and Theater during the Holocaust: Performance as a Link to Community. Holocaust and Genocide Studies, 19(3), 459-486.  

Silverman, J., 2002. The Undying Flame: Ballads and Songs of the Holocaust, Syracuse University Press.  

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