Deportation to France – October 1940

On October 21, 1940, late in the afternoon, my grandfather, as head of the Jewish community, was told to inform all the Jews of Philippsburg that the next day Jews were not allowed to leave their homes.  The next morning the police (it may have been the Gestapo) came to every Jewish house, to inform us that we had one hour to pack after which we would be taken away to an unknown destination.

An hour later, the police came to pick us up to march us to the central square, where a canvas covered truck was waiting for all the 21 Jews of Philippsburg, aged 10 to 80.  The truck took us to Bruchsal, 20 km away which was an assembly point for Jews from the area.  Late that afternoon, we were all marched to the railroad station.  When the train finally came, a passenger train with third class coaches, we were relieved that it was heading south and not north towards Poland.  While we didn’t know any details of what was happening in Poland, we knew that whatever it was, it wasn’t good.  All night long, the train headed south, stopping often to pick up more Jews along the way.  Early in the morning, we crossed the Rhine.  Now we knew that we were in France.

The train continued slowly towards the south, with frequent stops at sidings to let more important traffic pass.  I think it was late the next day when we noticed that no more uniformed Germans came walking through the train.  They were replaced, a while later, by French officers.  That meant that we had crossed the Demarcation Line between Occupied and “free” France.  On the evening of the third day, the train came to its final stop in Oloron-Ste-Marie (PyrenŽes Occidentales) where it remained all night.  This was our fourth night in the train.  Finally, during the next morning, we were told to leave the train and were loaded into open trucks which drove us 15 km to the Camp de Gurs.

All the Jews from the German provinces of Baden and Pfalz, a total of over 6,000 people, were deported to the Camp de Gurs at the same time.  The French authorities were not informed of this before our arrival.  Apparently, the Germans had plans to make all of Germany Judenrein  by deporting the Jews to Unoccupied France.  Because of strong French objections, this plan went no further and only the Jews from Baden and Pfalz were taken to France.

Le Camp de Gurs – October 1940 to March 1941

Gurs is located in the PyrenŽees, approximately 70 miles from the Atlantic Ocean, in the Basque region, where it rains five days out of seven.  The region is known for its lush forests and green meadows.  The Camp de Gurs was established in 1939 to house refugees from the Spanish Civil War, refugees who because of their political opinions – mostly leftist – were not desirable residents in France.  After the beginning of the war, it was used as an internment camp for enemy aliens, which meant anybody born in Germany or Austria, even if they were Jewish or anti-Nazi.  The Camp itself consisted of approximately twelve ”lots (literally, small islands), surrounded by barbed wire fences and located on either side of a central road.  Each ”lot had about 26 barracks, an open kitchen shed, an open washing area with a few slop sinks to wash laundry, a barrack (lavabos) with water faucets for personal hygiene, an administration barrack and the latrines.  A hospital barrack was also set up in most ”lots; people went there mostly to die.  The latrines consisted of eight to ten open stalls on top of a six foot high platform.  No vegetation grew in the entire Camp, and the constant rain transformed the ground into a sea of mud into which one could sink knee deep and lose one’s shoes.

The barracks of Gurs were of a special construction, with the lower parts of the walls slanting outwards.  They were constructed of rough wooden planks, covered with tar paper, with a wooden floor and a few small windows covered with plasticized chicken wire.  About eighty people were assigned to each.  The only furniture in the barracks was each person’s rolled up straw bag or mattress, suitcases and one cast iron stove in the center to provide a little heat.  Everybody lived sitting either on these straw bags or suitcases.  This is also how we ate, out of empty tin cans or any other suitable container we could find.

Theoretically, the inmates of all the camps in France were entitled to the same food rations as the French population at large, which at that time already did not have much to eat but could supplement its food rations through the black market.  In the camps, however, much less than the official rations reached us since the Camp’s administrators kept as much as they could for themselves and to sell on the black market.  I also read recently that the Camp commander wanted to save the government money by not spending too much on food. As a result of this, many people literally starved to death.

After a few weeks in Gurs, my grandmother fell sick with dysentery and general weakness.  She was moved to the hospital barrack.  I don’t remember ever visiting her there.  I suppose that my mother didn’t want me to see how bad conditions were in that barrack where my grandmother died a few days later.

The mortality rate in Gurs was very high, particularly among the old people, (the oldest was 98 years) who formed a majority of the Camp’s population.  Between 15 to 20 persons died every day, out of a total camp population of ten to fifteen thousand.  At this rate, the entire population would have died in less than two years.  The cold, the mud, the rain, the crowded living, the sickness, the lice, the fleas, the bedbugs and above all the lack of food made living conditions difficult for everybody and impossible for old people.  The Camp cemetery in which they were buried still exists today.

In each ”lot, a children’s barrack was set up.  This barrack had beds and was also used as a schoolroom.  Instruction was in German.  My mother taught and was responsible for the boys barrack.  That meant that she could sleep in a bed rather than on the ground.

There were several internment camps in southern France, of which the one in Gurs probably had the worst living conditions.  For that reason, some  of the internees   were moved from Gurs to other, less undesirable camps.  All children and teenagers and their families were assigned to the Camp of Rivesaltes.  Our family, including my grandfather, left Gurs in March 1941 in a transport which included all those assigned to the Camp de Rivesaltes.