Camp des Milles: Stories of Caution & Courage from France’s Past

IMG_2114It is unsettling, on a beautiful spring day, to arrive at such a solemn place, standing just paces from those forbidding railroad tracks.

“It’s haunting,” Kathy said, as we crossed the street and tracks and walked toward the still boarded-up windows.

What, I wonder, went through the minds of the prisoners in the summer of 1942, the children and parents as they waited to be packed onto cattle cars and deported to Auschwitz?

Camp des Milles stands today as a brick monument to a dark period of France’s history, the period just before World War II and the first years after Germany’s invasion.  Less than four miles south of Aix-en-Provence, a 15-minute, $1.40 bus ride from the city’s center, Camp des Milles from 1939 to 1942 served as an incarceration center. First, before the war, it housed as many as to 3,500 men at a time, many of them Jews and intellectuals who had fled Hitler’s Germany only to be locked up here. Later, in 1942, the camp briefly served as a staging area to ship France’s Jews to Auschwitz.  Few would return.

In 2012, Camp des Milles reopened to the public, the only French internment center from World War II intact today.  In all, about 77,000 of France’s 350,000 Jews perished in the Holocaust, reports.  Some 1,400 French children were murdered at Auschwitz alone.  The faces of many, family snapshots, line one second-story wall of Camp des Milles today. And yes. The pictures are haunting.

This was a chapter of French history too often glossed over in all those movies about the courageous French resistance. Video in the museum shows another dimension, French men and women lining the streets of Marseille and giving the Nazi salute to Marshall Petain, head of the puppet Vichy government during the war.

Today, Camp des Milles serves as more than a Holocaust Memorial, more, too, than a museum about the Second World War.  It’s both a living piece of history and an ethics center dedicated to educating students and other visitors about what leads entire societies to dehumanize and hate, and what individuals can do to resist. It uses multimedia presentations, computerized IMG_2120materials and thought-provoking questions as part of its lessons.

“What would I do if …?” and “how did this happen?” The words are written in French and English at the exhibit’s entrance.

“Everyone who enters here must leave changed, at least more aware,” author and Holocaust survivor Elie Wiesel wrote in a book for sale here. It is subtitled, “Learn from our past, for today and tomorrow.”

It is hard to imagine anyone could leave without more awareness.

It took decades of lobbying and work to reopen this place, a former tile factory turned into a cold, dark prison in which more than 10,000 people in all were interned.  Inmates lived in the tile ovens, but, unlike the German concentration camps, were not put to death. Rather, in 1942, more than 2,000 French Jews were loaded onto trains and shipped to Auschwitz.

Today, Camps dees Milles looks at the issue of genocide from a global perspective.  An exceptional multimedia exhibit toward the end of the tour shows parallels in the paths taken by three societies that degenerated into genocide — Turkey’s massacre of a minority Armenian population in 1915, Germany’s Holocaust in the 1940s, and the persecution and genocide of Rwanda’s Tutsis in 1994.

A wall following this multimedia tells the individual story of 100 people who resisted, people like the Camp des Milles guard who helped many Jewish internees escape, the Protestant pastor in Aix who entered the camp and gave Jewish children fake documents and baptism  certificates, and the Hutu general in Rwanda who sent a truck to rescue 20 Tutsis from slaughter.

The overall Camp des Milles exhibit begins with a room that traces the roots of the conditions that led to the rise of Nazi Germany  back to the end of World War I.  Toward the end of this section, the exhibit tells the story of some of the internment camps’ better-known prisoners, people like the German painter Max Ernst, twice incarcerated here before friends helped secure his release and escape to the United States through Spain.  Told, too, is the remarkable story of Varian Fry, a New York journalist who set up the American Rescue Committee in Marseille and saved nearly 2,000 people, among them Ernst, painter Marc Chagall and writer and political theorist Hannah Arendt, before he himself was expelled. And the story of Hiram Bingham IV, an American vice-counsul inIMG_2126  Marseille who issued 2,000 illegal visas to Jews and others.

The next section winds through the dark, cold corridors below ground, where Les Milles prisoners lived, often tripping over one another in the darkness.

Throughout, the exhibit emphasizes the stories of individuals, many of whom I’d never heard of, who spent time here or helped those who did.  But nothing is more powerful than the wall of faces of the French children killed in Auschwitz — family photos of the innocents,  indiscriminately murdered.

Throughout, the museum’s message is clear: Without vigilance, the horrors of the Holocaust, and other genocides, can happen again.

It’s a chilling thought here in the sunshine of the South of France, a few miles from affluent Aix and its Tourist Office, where information about Camp des Milles is not readily evident.  With unemployment above 11 percent in France,  and higher still in Europe as a whole, evidence of anti-semitism and racism isn’t hard to find.

When we arrived in France this January, the news media were filled with stories of the sharp-edged “comedian” Dieudonne, whose reverse Nazi salute (arm pointed downward), and whose anti-semitic positions led to the censoring of his act and extensive debate. Just this week the hard right National Front Party won 11 mayoral elections in French towns and small cities. Its leader, Marine Le Pen, pronounced, “There is now a third major political force in our country.”

Given the National Front’s control of less than 10 percent of the vote overall, that sounds like so much bluster. But as the exhibit at Camps des Milles notes, the German Nazi Party never exceeded 10 percent of the vote through the 1920s. Then Germany’s economic crisis turned the country and world on its head.

Some analysts would argue that Marine Le Pen has moved her party away from the overt anti-semitism for which her father, founder of the National Front, was known. Perhaps.

But certainly France has lots of company today in its flirtation with a nationalistic, “anti” party, against immigrants and minorities of all kinds. As the exhibit notes, economic despair, demagoguery, propaganda, rumors and racism are all part of but the first step in countries that have cascaded into extermination of entire populations.

The widespread bubbling of even this stage across the globe today is just one reason why it is important never to forget. That’s not possible after a journey to Camp des Milles.

Camp des Milles is open from 10-7, seven days a week. Entrance is $13.50 for adults and $10.50 for students and senior citizens. The three multimedia exhibits are in French, but all writing is in English as well. An audio tour is available in English for $4.  Be forewarned: The cafeteria was closed the Monday we went. Check ahead.


11 Replies to “Camp des Milles: Stories of Caution & Courage from France’s Past

  1. Thank you for this reminder of France’s complex past, and warning for the future. It is easy to forget that these places existed; good for France for restoring and opening this site to the public.

    1. Thanks Janet. It really is a remarkable place. Those who re-opened it have done a service to the French and a service to all who visit. What was heartening is that though no tourists were there with us, several French school groups were. And the guides really engaged them.

  2. While living in France we read 2 books by Robert Paxton, Vichy France and Fascism… We also read a book called Petain’s Crime. I imagine several people have read the book, Sarah’s Key.

    English friends who have lived in France for 40 years and raised their children in French schools say that it is very, very recently that France is facing this past. In our village Thoiry, just a few miles from Geneva, there is an old man who was a resistance fighter, maquis, who speaks to school children. It was occupied because it was on the border with SW and Italy and by the gap in the Jura through which people tried to get Jews through to Italy as it was willing to allow Jews in. Barbier operated there and it was very difficult.

  3. It’s nowhere near Aix, but if you get the chance to visit Oradour-sur-Glane,in the Limousin in northwest France, I suggest you take it. Oradour was burned to the ground by the retreating Germans after D-Day; nearly 650 men, women, and children were massacred. To this day, no one is sure of the reason.

    Oradour has been preserved as it was after being burned, and the experience of walking through the remains is searing.

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