The history of the concentration camps in France is a very difficult and sensitive subject. In 1939, before the Nazis invaded France, the French government had opened camps (like Gurs or Noe) designed to receive the Spanish refugees escaping from the fascist regime of Franco. These camps were guarded by the French police and in the summer 1940, all refugees were handed over the Nazis. They were quickly transferred to various concentration camps in Germany and very few of them survived.
The camp of Drancy was a transit camp located not far from Paris. Like many other detention centres throughout France, Drancy was created by the Vichy government of Philippe Pétain in 1941 and was under the control of the French police until July 3, 1943 when Nazi Germany took day-to-day control as part of the major stepping up at all facilities for the mass exterminations. The camp was opened after a roundup of in Paris Jews in August, 1941, in which over 4,000 Jews were arrested. The French police carried out additional roundups of Jews throughout the war. The conditions of life were extremely difficult, due to neglect of personal, ordinary human needs, adequate food, unsanitary conditions, and over-crowding.
The camp at Drancy was in a multi-storey complex designed to hold 700 people, but at its peak in it held more than 7,000. There is documented evidence and testimony recounting the brutality of the French guards in Drancy and the brutal conditions imposed on the people including the small children who, upon their arrival, were immediately separated from their parents. It is to Drancy that SS First Lieutenant Klaus Barbie transported Jewish children that he captured in a raid of a children’s home, before deporting them to Auschwitz, where they were all killed. In December 1941, 40 prisoners from Drancy were executed in retaliation for a French attack on German police officers.
Proof exists that more than 3,000 prisoners died in the French camps from lack of medical care or starvation. During the nights of July 16 and July 17, 1942, an incident occurred, which is now called “La Rafle du Vel d’Hiv” (The Great Raid of the Vel d’Hiv) - the Velodrome d’Hiver was a stadium in Paris designed for bike races. (The French destroyed the stadium after the war). This police operation had been organized after several discussions between the government of Petain and the Nazi occupation administration. The code name of this operation was “Vent printanier” (Spring Wind) and all the arrests were made by the French police under the control of French police officials. Originally, only the Jews who were older than age 16 had to be arrested. It was under the proposal of Prime Minister Laval that all the children were arrested.
More than 12,800 (3,031 men, 5,802 women and 4,051 children aged between 2 and 12) were transferred to the Velodrome d’Hiver. The children were kept there for 5 miserable days without any food or medical care and then they were transferred to Drancy, Beaune-la-Rolande or Pithiviers. The children were separated from their parents by the French police immediately after their arrival in Drancy. The parents were transported to Auschwitz and gassed. The children stayed in Drancy, sometimes for weeks, without any proper care or adequate food. Several babies and very young children died in Drancy due to the lack of care and the brutality of the French guards. Finally, they were all transported to Auschwitz and gassed upon their arrival. More than 6,000 Jewish children from all the regions of France were arrested and transported to their deaths between July 17 and September 30, 1942.
There were several other camps like Drancy in France: Noe, Gurs, Recebedou ...
During more than 40 years, the French Government refused to admit the responsibility of the regime of Petain and the French police in the deportation of the French Jews. However, on July 16, 1995, president Jacques Chirac, in a speech, recognized the responsibility of the French State, and in particular of the French police which organized the July 1942 “La Rafle du Vel d’Hiv”, for seconding the “criminal folly of the occupying country”.
Sources: The Forgotten Camps