Saturday, 25 February 2012

# 40 [17 October 2009]

Some of the Spanish who were held at the make-shift camps on the beach at Argeles were recruited in work parties to extend the already-standing military base at Rivesaltes, little knowing that they would be interned there themselves.

During the '60s when the Harkis were housed at Rivesaltes the huts were in bad repair, most of them uninhabitable, so they slept in tents. When the last Harkis left the camp in 1970 they were housed on an especially constructed estate, unfortunately on a flood-plain, even after flooding they remain there today.

One issue that has interested me is the organisation of the camp during the war, at no time were German Nazis involved in the running of the camp, it was the Vichy administration who were in charge. The Jews who were sent to Auschwitz were sent by Vichy government chief-of-police Rene Bousquet; the Nazis had requested 40,000 Jews to be sent to concentration camps in Eastern Europe from the south of France, he sent an extra 10,000, 2,313 of which were from Rivesaltes. Elodie explained that in this way Rivesaltes played a real part in the Final Solution. The guards were all French, mostly local Gendarmes from Rivesaltes and Perpignan.

The Jews held at the camp were mainly from Germany and Poland, French Jews were not held there (unlike other camps in the south). I found it interesting that the French Rabbi from Perpignan visited the camp. Jewish festivals were celebrated and other interns, Spanish and Gypsies, joined in - language was not an issue. Vivette Samuel, an aid worker for the OSE: With a trembling hand, one of the veteran inmates lights the first small flame of the gigantic Menorah built by the detainees. And the traditional song borne by hundreds of voices ascends in the night that falls on the camps. For a moment the suffering recedes and I allow myself to be invaded by an immense hope.

Another piece of information which had eluded me was what happened to the bodies of those who died at the camp from malnutrition and disease, I knew that the few graves at the cemetry at Rivesaltes did not account for the thousands who died there. Elodie explained that there are a few graves at Perpignan, but it is largely believed that many were incinerated or buried in a mass-grave outside the camp, however no evidence has been found.

Whilst walking around Ilot K, Elodie pointed out the hut where Friedel Bohny-Reiter wrote her journal ('Journal de Rivesaltes'). The hut was covered in frescos on the interior, ones I had not noticed before, a Swiss mountain landscape. On the exterior, covered by bushes a painting of a train (a strange subject to us, but they didn't know their fate) plane and boat. Elodie said that the thinking behind these depictions of transport was to encourage people to consider how they might leave the camp. It is such a shame that soon these may be lost.

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