The first internment camps in France opened in March 1939, to house the Spanish republican refugees in the south-west of France in Rivesaltes, Récébedou, Noé, Argelès and Gurs.
When war broke out in September 1939, many Spaniards had gone home. Shortly after the declaration of war the camps were rapidly filled with foreigners arrested by the police during a nation-wide roundup organized during the first days of the state of emergency. 15,000 foreigners were interned in French camps including hundreds of eminent anti-Nazi refugees. In May 1940, when the Germans entered France, many foreign refugees, men and women suspected of being enemies or spies, were again victims of so-called “administrative internment” in the camps in the south-west by order of the French authorities. Among theses people, there were many foreign Jews, in particular German and Austrian Jews.
Jews were rounded up along with the other foreigners and the fact of being Jews seemed to have increased their vulnerability. Foreign Jews were usually stateless and poor, speaking with a strong accent and they represented about 70% of the 40,000 civilians interned in unoccupied France toward the end of 1940. The camp system became a fact of life and the officials became accustomed to assembling large groups of foreigners, a majority of which were Jews. The change of regime in July 1940 did not therefore mark a sharp change because the policy of Vichy toward refugees did not represent a significant change from that of the end of the Third Republic. It was just a continuation and reinforcement of this policy except for the fact that the new regime made it more legitimate to express anti-Jewish sentiment by doing away with Republican laws and customs.
After the fall of France and during the occupation, new internment camps were opened in the occupied zone when Jews were targeted both by the occupation authorities and also by the French authorities. Thus camps were opened in the Loiret department, in Compiègne and Drancy which were the main internment and transit camps for Jews deported from France.
The camp in Drancy
Drancy was one of the main French internment camps where Jews transited before deportation. The “cite de la Muette” in Drancy, a U-shaped housing complex built in 1935-36 to provide low-cost housing for the social housing office (HLM) of the Seine department received the first Jews rounded up in Paris starting in August 1941. 62 of the 77 convoys to the death camps left France from the nearby stations in Le Bourget (until July 1943) and Bobigny: a total of 65,000 people were deported. In 1942, 32 convoys out of the total of 43 left from Drancy. Out of the 17 convoys deported in 1943 and the 14 in 1944, the only one which did not leave from Drancy was the August 11, 1944 convoy which left from Lyon. Out of these 62 convoys, only six did not go to Auschwitz-Birkenau. Convoy 50 and 51 were sent to Magdanek and Sobibor, convoys 52 and 53 to Sobibor, and convoy 73 to Kaunas in Lithuania.
The last convoy which took Aloïs Brunner back to Germany left for Buchenwald with 51 deportees on board.
Drancy was run by the French authorities until the month of July 1943. The three French officers in charge one after the other, were appointed by the Prefecture of the police in the Seine department. The French administration of the camp was under continual surveillance by the “Sicherheitpolizei” (Security Police) and the “Sicherheitdienst” (security administration). On July 2, 1943, the Nazi, Aloïs Brunner, was appointed head of the camp which came under Nazi administration and the French gendarmes simply guarded the outside of the camp. From then on, the camp functioned just like the Nazi concentration camps.
The Pithiviers and Beaune-La-Rolande camps
Both of these camps were administered by the French authorities as one entity and were under the authority of the Prefect of the Loiret department. The two camps were only 23 kilometers apart and were intended for the internment of Jews. About one hundred gendarmes and customs officers guarded the two camps.
The Pithiviers camp was about 500 meters from the city. Initially this camp had been a “Frontstalag” for French prisoners of war although it had been planned as a German war prisoner camp; it was composed of 19 barracks including two for the infirmary.
The Beaune-la-Rolande camp was on a plateau east of the town and included 18 barracks, 14 of which were used for the prisoners. It occupied an area of three hectares and was surrounded by a double row of barbed wire.
The first Jews detained in the Loiret camps were sent from the Austerlitz station in Paris following the first wave of arrests in Paris on May 14, 1941. 1,693 Jews were imprisoned in Pithiviers and about 2,000 in Beaune-La-Rolande.
After the Paris roundups in July 1942, families with children were transferred by train to the Loiret camps, which became overpopulated and epidemics broke out. Between July 31 and August 7, 1942, four convoys composed of adolescents and adults left the Loiret camps for Auschwitz. At each departure the gendarmes separated the women and children hitting them with rifle butts. The 1,800 children from Pithiviers and the 1,500 from Beaune-La-Rolande were kept in the Loiret camps, torn from their parents and left to fend for themselves. They were then deported in seven convoys which left from Drancy between August 19 and September 2, 1942. The children were transferred from the Loiret camps (south of Paris) to Drancy (north of Paris) in four convoys between August 19 and August 25, 1942.
On the very day the first convoy of children was transferred from the Loiret to Drancy, some of the children were deported from Drancy to Auschwitz in convoy n° 21. From then on, until convoy n°27 on September 2, 1942, the orphans from the Loiret camps were deported to Auschwitz and assassinated upon arrival.
Six convoys left from Pithiviers: convoy n°4 on June 25, 1942, n°6 on July 17, n°13 on July 31, n°14 on August 3, n°16 on August 7, and lastly, convoy n°35 on September 21, 1942. Six convoys left from Beaune-la-Rolande: convoy n°5 on June 28, 1942, and convoy n°15 on August 5, 1942.
The camp in Compiègne
The camp was a quadrilateral, each side 400 meters long and was located in the outskirts of Compiègne in a place called Royallieu. The Germans set up the camp using existing barracks and it was first used for French and British prisoners before becoming an internment camp as of June 22, 1941. There were four sub-camps where different categories of detainees were held. The most important quarters and the most stable were reserved for political prisoners occupying a dozen buildings. In addition to the political prisoners, there were foreign detainees, Americans and Russians who were held in special buildings. The Jews were kept apart from the rest of the camp and the conditions were worse than for the others; they were separated by a double wall preventing any contact with the other prisoners. The camp in Compiègne was the only transit camp in France which had always been under German administration. It is known for being the first center for the deportation of French political prisoners.
The Jews represented about 12% of the prison population. They were detained in Compiègne at the start of the Occupation and then later they were systematically sent to Drancy.
The sub-camp for Jews in Compiègne was inaugurated the night of December 12-13, 1941, when 743 Jews arrested that same day were transferred there along with 300 foreigners from Drancy in the same train. From then on, there were repeated transfers between the Drancy and Compiègne camps as prisoners were sent back and forth. 49,860 deportees left Compiègne in 54 different convoys; 52 were sent to concentration camps and about one thousand people were deported each time between March, 1942 and August, 1944. As the years passed the convoys were more and more numerous: 5 in 1942, 22 in 1943, and 27 in 1944. The transports led to the following destinations: 16 convoys to Buchenwald, 8 convoys to Mauthausen, 5 convoys to Ravensbrück. The first two convoys of Jews deported to Auschwitz left from there on March 27 and June 5, 1942.