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Conditions in the French Detention and Internment Camps


The internment camps currently pose the most distressing problem concerning human living conditions.

At the beginning of the war, refugees from the Great German Reich were interned in notorious camps such as Argeles, where Spanish prisoners and the remnants of the International Brigade had already been held for many months. They were subsequently joined by thousands of foreign nationals from France, Belgium and Holland, who were interned following the administrative measures of May 10, 1940 (Mandel Ordinance).

The law of October 4, 1940 stipulates that all Jewish foreign nationals can be interned in special camps by decision of their local Police Chief. This law has not yet come into force, but fresh internments can always be expected.

I) Actual Conditions of the Camps

Despite a certain number of releases and emigrations, there are currently still over 15,000 interned Jews. (Taking into account the labor and service detachments, the numbers reach 45,000).

These different camps hold side by side common criminals, political prisoners, innocent people interned simply by dint of an anonymous letter or a slanderous denunciation, ex-legionnaires, and volunteers from distant countries who have came to serve the country which they had adopted and which had adopted them. There are 7,500 German Jews, from simple agricultural laborers to eminent scholars. Among these, there are certainly some that are still in good health. But alongside them, living in appalling conditions of overcrowding and lack of hygiene and food, are sickly children, pregnant women, feeble old people, and even madmen, who arrived in these camps after terrible trials, which had sapped their physical and mental resistance.

The internees are distributed over 8 camps of two kinds: the detention camps and the actual internment camps.

The Detention Camps

GURS is the most notorious camp. Its very name was considered for many months the symbol of the most terrible threat to human beings. There were once 12,000 internees there; today there are still some 7,000 internees, of whom 90% are Jews.

RIVESALTES, created last January, is a detention camp for families and children; it holds 8,000 internees, 3,000 of whom are children. There are 3,000 Jews there, whose situation is no better than those living at Gurs.

The camps of NOE and RECEBEDOU, which are practically identical in their composition and number of inmates, each hold 1,700 - 1,800 sick, old and infirm internees.

The composition of the MILLES camp is variable: it detains persons scheduled for emigration. On March 22, it had 1,000 inmates, of whom 80 were Jews.

The Internment Camps

At VERNET, there are 3,200 interned men, of whom 25% are Jews, political prisoners and refugees with a more or less regular administrative situation.

The ARGELES camp holds 200 Jews together with 700 Spanish cripples.

The RIEUCROS camp is the womens equivalent of VERNET; it holds 400 undesirable Jewish women.

II) What Internment Camps Are

Numerous reports by the almoners, doctors, social workers and representatives of different charitable organizations that have observed life in the camps give us today an accurate picture of the appalling fate reserved for the wretched internees.

The living quarters in most of the camps consist of badly constructed huts, susceptible to wind, rain, and cold. In almost all the camps, windows are replaced by full awnings, which have to be lifted up to let a little air in. These huts are 50 to 60 meters long and shelter up to 96 people in two tiers. The internees sleep on straw, except for those who have been able to purchase a straw mattress. The straw is very rarely changed. The quarters, in general, are very badly maintained and, with only rare exceptions, are repugnantly filthy. It is impossible to get rid of the vermin that have taken hold there, since there does not exist in any camp a systematic disinfecting mechanism.

In general, the internees possess only the garment and the underwear that they wear, and the hovels in which they live makes it impossible from them to properly look after their clothing. Furthermore, there are not enough washbasins, the water supply is often insufficient, and showers are too rare. Thus, for months, the internees have only been able to wash themselves hastily and incompletely. Some have not undressed for six months. One can imagine their present state of destitution.

Access to lavatories is generally difficult because of the mud surrounding them. Almost everywhere they are so poorly maintained and so rarely disinfected that not only is there a dreadful stink but also a permanent risk of infection, especially during the hot season when flies and mosquitoes proliferate and spread contagious diseases.

Rodents have appeared, which besides attacking the food reserves, also carry harmful bacteria. In addition to the poor accommodation, the wretched internees in most of the camps are also poorly fed. The food allowance allocated to them is a daily 10 francs 50. In principle, this is sufficient to provide for a normal diet. The allowance, however, is never completely spent on food because of various reasons, in particular, the current difficulty in procuring food. The amount spent daily by each internee has been evaluated at 3-4 francs.

While the normal ration required by a human being lies between 2,000 and 2,400 calories - the essential requirement being 1500 calories - most of the internees consume barely 800 calories. In addition, the cold in their living quarters and their inadequate clothing cause an abnormal calorie loss. An example of a daily ration distributed in a camp best illustrates the gravity of the situation:

180 to 200 grams of bread.

2 to 3 grams of fat

50 grams of rice, twice weekly

turnip and swede soup

1/4 of coffee.

This is not a meal but rather the sum total of food distributed for an entire day. The children at RIVESALTES, for instance, receive milk coffee without bread in the morning; from six o'clock in the evening until the following day at noon, they remain without a gram of solid food. In truth, in certain camps the food is distributed less sparingly, but the above example is the most common diet in most of the camps.

The consequences of living in unhealthy living quarters with an almost total lack of hygiene and a seriously unhealthy diet have very rapidly manifested themselves. The situation of the children is particularly wretched. Over 20% of the children are nervy or weak and should urgently be removed from the camps. The health of most of the adult internees is also very deficient. A substantial rise in tuberculosis claims new casualties daily. A progressive weakening of the body, which occurs in all the internees (many of whom had already arrived at the camp in a pitiful physical state), leaves the door open to illness. At the St. Cyprien camp, which has now been closed, 85% of the internees simultaneously fell victim to dysentery; at Rivesaltes, 80% of the internees suffer from chronic enteritis. Such occurrences are far too numerous.

Despite all these diseases, which grow in scope monthly, hospitalization is very rare and insufficient. A painful example is that of the St. Louis Hospital in Perpignan, which although it resembles the worst medieval general hospitals, it continues to receive patients. Not all the hospitals are as badly equipped, but, unfortunately, even when there are doctors and beds for the patients, there is no medication, no basic sanitary material, and no artificial limbs.

Such material conditions unavoidably have a lamentable effect on morale. The material destitution of the wretched internees in these camps results in a parallel moral destitution. The problem is multi-faceted.

Except for the RIVESALTES camp, which accommodates whole families, households have been split up, and there are only a few makeshift households ... Parental authority has been made impossible and education impracticable. Thus, unfortunate people, who have undergone appalling trials, lead an atrociously difficult daily life. Releases being so rare, they cannot even take comfort in the hope of a better future. The comfort that many of them seek in practicing their religion is rarely permitted.

In several camps, morale has been severely affected by the measures recently taken by the German authorities, who periodically conscript workers in the camps. At Argeles, 130 Jews of all nationalities aged 15 to 65 have been embarked for an unknown destination; at Rivesaltes, 50 people have undergone the same fate. Other departures are scheduled, causing great consternation in the wives and children of those who might be taken.

Thus, both the material situation of the internees and the state of their morale are tragic. If we are to prevent the internees from sinking into disease and death or into discouragement and despair, we must act very rapidly and efficiently.

Note: The second part of the report, not presented here, concerns the steps taken by the different charitable organizations in an effort to improve the conditions of the internees.

Source: AIU, CC-28

Yad Vashem