In March 1939, the first internment camps opened in Rivesaltes, Récébedou, Noé, Argelès and Gurs, in southwest France, to house Spanish Republican refugees. By the time the war broke out in September, many of the Spanish detainees had gone home. Shortly afterwards, 15,000 foreigners, including hundreds of eminent anti-Nazi refugees, arrested during a nationwide roundup quickly filled the camps. When Germany invaded France in May 1940, many foreign refugees — men and women suspected of being enemies or spies — were again victims of “administrative internment” in the camps in the southwest by order of the French authorities. Many were Jews, mostly from Germany and Austria.
Jews were rounded up along with other foreigners; in fact, being Jewish seems to have increased their vulnerability. Most were poor and stateless and spoke with heavy accents. They accounted for around 70% of the 40,000 civilians interned in unoccupied France toward the end of 1940. The camp system became a fact of life and officials became used to assembling large groups of foreigners, most of them Jews. The advent of the new regime in July 1940, then, did not mark a significant change. Vichy’s refugee policy was practically the same as that of the late Third Republic. It just continued and strengthened that policy. The main difference was that the new regime made it more acceptable to express anti-Jewish sentiment by doing away with Republican laws and values.
After the fall of France and during the occupation, when both Nazis and French authorities targeted Jews, new internment camps opened up in the occupied zone. The main internment and transit camps for Jews deported from France were in the Loiret department, Compiègne and Drancy.
Drancy was the main French internment and transit camp for Jews before deportation. The “Cité de la Muette”, a square U-shaped apartment complex built in 1935-36 as low-cost housing in the Seine department, held the first Jews rounded up in Paris in August 1941. Of the 77 transports to the death camps, 62 left from the nearby train stations in Le Bourget (until July 1943) and Bobigny: around 65,000 people were deported. In 1942, 32 of the total 43 transports left from Drancy. Only one of the 17 transports that left France in 1943 and the 14 that left in 1944 did not start in Drancy: the August 11, 1944 transport, which departed from Lyon. Only six of these 62 transports did not go to Auschwitz-Birkenau. Transport 50 and 51 went to Majdanek and Sobibor, transports 52 and 53 to Sobibor and transport 73 to Kaunas, Lithuania. The last transport, which also took Aloïs Brunner back to Germany, left for Buchenwald with 51 deportees aboard.
The French authorities ran Drancy until July 1943. The Seine Department’s Prefecture of Police appointed the three French officers who were successively in charge. The camp’s French administration was under constant surveillance by the Sicherheitspolizei (Security Police) and Sicherheitsdienst (Security Service). On July 2, 1943, the Nazis took over the camp’s administration and appointed Aloïs Brunner to run it. French gendarmes guarded the exterior. From then on, Drancy functioned like a Nazi concentration camp.
Pithiviers and Beaune-La-Rolande
French officials administered both of these camps, which were under the authority of the Prefect of the Loiret Department, as a single unit. Just 23 kilometers apart, they were intended for the internment of Jews. Around 100 gendarmes and customs officers guarded them.
The Pithiviers camp was about 500 meters from town. Although built as a German POW camp, initially it had been a Frontstalag for French POWs. It had 19 barracks, including two for the infirmary.
The Beaune-la-Rolande camp was on a plateau east of town and had 18 barracks, 14 of which were used to house prisoners. It covered three hectares and was surrounded by a double row of barbed wire.
The first Jews detained in the Loiret camps — 1,693 in Pithiviers and roughly 2,000 in Beaune-La-Rolande — left the Austerlitz train station in Paris after the first wave of arrests in the capital on May 14, 1941.
After the Paris roundups in July 1942, families with children were put on trains to the Loiret camps, which became so overcrowded that epidemics broke out. Between July 31 and August 7, 1942, four transports of adolescents and adults left the Loiret camps for Auschwitz. At each departure, gendarmes separated the women and children by hitting them with rifle butts. The 1,800 children from Pithiviers and 1,500 from Beaune-La-Rolande were left behind and had to fend for themselves. Later, they were then deported on seven transports, which left Drancy between August 19 and September 2, 1942. They were transferred from the Loiret camps (south of Paris) to Drancy (north of Paris) on four transports between August 19 and August 25, 1942.
On the same day that the first children’s transport left the Loiret for Drancy, some of the children in Drancy were deported to Auschwitz on transport 21. From then until transport 27 left on September 2, 1942, orphans were deported from the Loiret camps to Auschwitz and killed on arrival.
Six transports left from Pithiviers: number four on June 25, 1942, six on July 17, 13 on July 31, 14 on August 3, 16 on August 7, and 35 on September 21. Six left from Beaune-la-Rolande.
This camp was at a place on the outskirts of Compiègne called Royallieu. It had the form of a quadrilateral, each side being 400 meters long. The Germans used existing barracks that had first served to hold French and British POWs before becoming an internment camp on June 22, 1941. There were four sub-camps holding different categories of detainees. The biggest, most stable quarters — a dozen buildings — housed political prisoners. Foreign detainees, including American and Soviet nationals, were held in special buildings. Jews were kept apart and their living conditions were worse. A double wall preventing any contact with other prisoners separated them from the rest of the camp. Compiègne was the only transit camp in France that had always been under German control. It is also known for being the first deportation center for French political prisoners. Jews accounted for about 12% of the camp’s population. Detained in Compiègne early in the Occupation, all were later sent to Drancy.
The sub-camp for Jews opened on the night of December 12-13, 1941, when 743 detainees arrested that day were sent there on the same train with 300 foreigners from Drancy. From then on, there were repeated transfers between Drancy and Compiègne as detainees were sent back and forth. Altogether, 49,860 deportees left Compiègne on 54 different transports, 52 of which went to concentration camps. Around 1,000 people were deported on each transport between March 1942 and August 1944. The number of transports rose from five in 1942 to 22 in 1943 and 27 in 1944. Sixteen led to Buchenwald, eight to Mauthausen and five to Ravensbrück. The first two transports of Jews deported to Auschwitz left on March 27 and June 5, 1942.