French Prime Minister Jean-Marc Ayrault inaugurated a memorial to Camp des Milles, the only WWII French internment and deportation camp still intact, Monday, as he paid tribute to the approximately 10,000 prisoners held there “under French authority”.
Built on the site of an ancient tilery, the camp operated during the period when the South of France was unoccupied by German forces, and therefore functioned under the command of the French military, succeeded by the WWII French Vichy administration.
Requisitioned by the government in September 1939, the site housed more than 10,000 people from 38 different nationalities interned there, before frequently being deported to Nazi death camps. Amongst them were many German intellectuals who had sought refuge in France.
“The story of Camp des Milles is a French story,” stressed the Prime Minister at the start of a visit to the site where he met with survivors 70 years to the day after the last deportation of a group of prisoners left the site to be transferred to concentration camps. The memorial opened to the public on Monday, following many years of extensive work.
“From September 1939 to September 1942, it fell continuously under the authority of the French administration, before the Vichy government took power and became intentionally complicit, in 1942, in the deportation policies put in place by the German Nazi regime,” added Ayrault.
Accompanied by several ministers as well as “Nazi hunter” Beate Klarsfeld, Ayrault condemned Milles as “one of the facets of the dishonourable politics” perpetrated by the Vichy administration en route to Nazi collaboration.
The Prime Minister also invoked German author Lion Feuchtwanger, in penning the German proverb “Happy like a God in France” and reflecting in 1942that “the Devil didn’t live badly there either”.
French President Francois Hollande emulated the words of former president Jacques Chirac, on July 22, in acknowledging French culpability for the crimes committed against its Jewish population, at a commemoration of the 70th anniversary of the Velodrome d’Hiver, which he claimed was perpetrated “by France”.
Popularly referred to as the “raid of the Velodrome d’Hiver”, after the former internment camp close to the River Seine where the Jews were held prior to their deportation, the site where the memorial ceremony took place now houses a monument to the victims of the atrocity.
The cycling track served as an internment camp for some 13,000 Jews who were sent to death camps from Nazi-occupied France during World War II on July 16 and 17, 1942, in the largest single mass deportation of French Jews during the Holocaust.
On July 16 and 17, 1942, 13,152 Jews were rounded up by the French police in Paris and its suburbs, before being deported to Nazi death camps, most notably Auschwitz. Of those numbers, 8,160, of whom 4,115 were children, were held at the Velodrome d’Hiver, a cycling track, for four days, whilst the remaining number, consisting of childless couples and the unmarried, were piled up in the makeshift camp.
Of the thousands of victims of the raid, only a handful survived, none of whom were children.