Secrets of a French Concentration Camp

By Reverend Dr Thomas Wilson

 

In the Mont-de-Huisnes German War Cemetery in southern Normandy, close to Mont-Saint-Michel, set in the entrance to the cemetery, there is a large plaque that contains the names 39 people, many of infants and toddlers, others of young women, a few of German soldiers, and 59 whose names are unknown. There is no real indication why the women and children are interred in a German military cemetery, and few people have inquired about it, especially as this women and children’s tomb is over shadowed by the almost 12,000 Germans and their Russian volunteers interred in the larger mausoleum. The story of these women and children is a sad part of World War 2 French history.

Concentration Camps. Those two words are burned into the remembrance of World War 2 related to the Nazi rule over occupied Europe.

What many people do not realize is that there were concentration camps located in France beginning in 1936 as well.  The first two camps, at Gurs in the Pyrennes-Atlantique and at Rivesaltes in the Pyrennes-Orientales were set up for the internment of Spanish Republican refugees fleeing the advances of General Francisco Franco’s Nationalist forces. These refugees numbered over 500,000 men, women and children. The refugees crossed the French border illegally over the Pyrennes and were imprisoned until a determination could be made if they were to be permitted to stay in France. As the number of Spanish Republican refugees grew, camps to intern them were soon built across France, and transfers from the Gurs and Rivesaltes camps were routinely made. However by 1939 these French camps became holding areas for all sorts of Europeans fleeing the changing situation in Nazi Germany, as well as Czechoslovakia and Austria, without distinction of nationality.

When World War 2 began, the demand for further camps increased as refugees fleeing the German and Soviet invasion of Poland also found their way to France. However, it wasn’t until the defeat of France in June 1940 that there was massive increase in the demand for camps in France, both for French POW’s and civilians. In October 1940, a camp was established at Aincourt in the Val-d’Oise department, for members of the French Communist Party. Other camps were also established to house, what the French collaborationist Government of Marshal Petain located at Vichy deemed, as undesirables most notably Romani (Gypsy) and Jewish people. These camps were mostly run by the Gendarmes or national police. These camps included: Saline royale d’Arc-et-Senans, Coudrecieux, the aforementioned Gurs, Jargeau, Linas-Montlhery, Montreuil-Bellay, Poitiers, Saint-Maurice-aux-Riches-Hommes, and Saliers. A camp was also created at Vittel in the Vosges for British and Commonwealth citizens who had not escaped France, and also for American citizens after December 1941.

The camp at Drancy in a Parisan suburb, initially housed the Jews who were rounded up on 20 August 1941. Drancy, by 1942, had become the major transit Camp for French Jews and others deemed expendable by the Germans, as they were collected from smaller camps across France and sent onward to the death camps in Nazi occupied Poland.

Most people would think these various French and German run concentration camps would have been closed and dismantled when the Allies freed the majority of France in the summer and fall of 1944.  However, this was not the case.  The provisional French Government of General Charles de Gaulle was still uncertain about how they regarded Romani people and many of the camps continued to house Romani men, women and children until the Fourth Republic was proclaimed in 1946.

The last significant French territory to be liberated was that of Alsace-Lorraine, on the western bank of the Rhine River facing Germany. For many centuries France sought to preserve what it considered to be its natural boundary along the Rhine. Alsace-Lorraine and its principalities were conquered by France in the 16th – 18th centuries. While conquered, it proved quite easy for the princes to continue to rule, just by switching allegiance to the King of France. Alsace-Lorraine was called “the King of France’s German Territories” until the French Revolution when they became part of France proper. However, Alsace-Lorraine maintained much of its German heritage, including the majority of its citizens speaking German as their first language.

In Franco-Prussian war of 1870, the newly amalgamated principalities of Germany, defeated the French and required the return of the territory of Alsace-Lorraine. The territory remained under German governance until the Treaty of Versailles ended World War One, when it was returned to France.  When Germany conquered France in 1940, one of the Armistice requirements was the return of Alsace-Lorraine to Germany. Once again part of Germany, its people were regarded as German citizens and all young males were subject to conscription in the German army. Many Alsatian men were conscripted and served in the German armies, particularly in Russia.

In the fall of 1944 and early winter of 1945, a major battle was fought by the American-French 6th Army Group and the 1st French Army with the German Army in Alsace-Lorraine. As the Allies re-captured more and more of Alsace-Lorraine, they encountered women who were married to men serving in the German army and where therefore of suspect loyalty to the victorious French State.

After the initial German defeat of France, near Poitiers a number of POW camps for French soldiers were established, including one at La Chauvinerie. This particular camp, called Frontstalag 230, was established in August 1940 by the Germans and used to house over 16,000 French colonial troops from Senegal, Gambia and Mauritania, who were regarded as sub-human by the Germans, and therefore separated from regular French POW’s.  The Germans abandoned the camp, removing most of the POW’s in February 1942 and it was turned over to French administration to house “French undesirables” as determined by the German administration and enforced by the Vichy Government, namely ordinary criminal prisoners, political prisoners, and even some of the French colonial troops who had not been removed by the Germans.

The La Chauvinerie Camp was emptied of its French inhabitants when the Allies liberated the Poitiers area, but it was not destroyed. As it was the opposite side of France from Alsace-Lorraine, it was deemed perfect to house the thousands of women, who along with their children had been deemed to be German sympathizers solely because their husband, or father, was serving in the German army.

Put in charge of the La Chauvinerie Camp was a French colonel from World War One, who had been called back into service, with, what has been described as a pathological hatred of all things German.  The commandant ensured that his guards (all supposed former members of the French Resistance, who had been enlisted in the French army) systematically starved the internees, deprived them of medical care to treat the diseases that often arise when people are housed in close proximity in poor conditions, and even sold the milk that was sent by the French Provisional Government for the infants and young children. While hundreds of women died and along with all the children under four years old the camp commandant became rich from the sale of food, milk and medications on the Poitiers blackmarket. The colonel’s deliberate neglect of innocent women and children continued from the fall of 1944 until November 1945 when the camp was closed. It closure was caused by the discovery of the commandant’s illegal activities and his being removed from his command. However, he did not face any further punishment for his role in the deaths of hundreds of innocent Alsatian women and children. It is these women and their children who are commemorated on the plaque covering their tomb at the entrance to the Mont-de-Huines military cemetery. Originally they had been buried near the La Chauvinerie camp but in the 1950’s it was decided by the new German Government, in consultation with the French Government, to combine the many scattered German cemeteries in France into a few large ones. At that time, many of the dead at La Chauvinerie, who still had family in Alsace-Lorraine, had their graves removed to their home region. Only those whose remains were not claimed or were identified as soldiers, were moved to Mont-de-Huines German cemetery.

The years 1940-1949 are a sensitive subject in France, even 75 years later, and there are many stories, such as the internment and deaths of Alsatian women and children in the La Chauvinerie camp, yet to be told. It is easy for the victors of a conflict to not write about their own faults and flaws, and how these flaws were emphasized by heated passions at the end of World War 2.  The La Chauvinerie camp would have remained lost in the mists of history, except for the fact that the land where the camp had been was to be developed into an industrial/commercial park and as the land was being prepared for development, “anomalies” appeared on aerial photographs of the site, which led the French Regional Archeological Service to excavate the site, thinking there might be ruins from antiquity there, and the remains of Frontstalag 230/La Chuavinerie camp came to light.

Whether the women and children from the La Chauvinerie camp should have been interred in a German military cemetery, solely on the basis of their living in Alsace-Lorraine, and having husbands who had been conscripted into the service of the Nazi German army is open to discussion, but Mont-des-Huines is now their final resting place.

© Copyright 2021 by Rev Dr Thomas Wilson
All rights reserved

Dispatches from Juno shares all the news, events, and stories from the Juno Beach Centre in France and Canada. Interested in contributing a story to the blog? Email the editor at jbca@junobeach.org.

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