Royallieu-Compiègne Internment Camp

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I had intended to write about a different subject altogether before I realised that today is Yom HaShoah – or rather Yom HaZikaron laShoah ve-laG’vurah (יום הזיכרון לשואה ולגבורה; ‘Holocaust and Heroism Remembrance Day’) as it is officially called. To mark this day, I have chosen to write about one of the numerous French internment camps, one that is situated only an hour’s drive from where I live.

The Royallieu-Compiègne camp was an internment and deportation camp in Compiègne, France where French resistance fighters and Jews were imprisoned between June 1941 and August 1944.

About 40,000 people were deported from the Royallieu-Compiègne camp to Auschwitz and other camps in German-occupied territory. It was one of the biggest transit camps in France, from which the Germans deported political prisoners, many of whom were civilian Jewish communists. It was from the camp at Royallieu that the very first deportation train was to leave French soil on March 27th, 1942. It took over a thousand Jews to Auschwitz, as did the next one on June 5th.

The internment and deportation memorial opened on February 23, 2008. There one can learn about life in the Royallieu camp through a historic walk which leads to two of the remaining buildings. As they walk through a dozen of rooms and two corridors, visitors learn about the historical context in France and other European countries, life in the camp, deportation and extermination by the Nazis. After the barracks, one can visit the chapel, see the beginning of the escape tunnel, contemplate the wall of names and walk through the memorial garden.

One of the things that surprised and impressed me most when I visited this camp with a group of French and Swedish students last spring was how the inmates had organized cultural life in the camp. Conferences on English, Esperanto, political philosophy, history, the humanities, science and much more were given in the barracks (as is shown in the schedule above).

I can only guess but I assume that they saw intellectual improvement as a means to keep hope alive even when there was very little reason for feeling optimistic about the future. This is a message in itself. Even in dark moments, we ought never to lose hope that there will be better times.

What we are remembering today should never happen again – not to us and not to anyone else.

Never Forget!

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International Holocaust Remembrance Day

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In 2005, the United Nations designated January 27, the anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz, as International Holocaust Remembrance Day. Here is a selection of links to recent articles that are Holocaust-related. I might update this post during the day as more articles get published.

Articles on the Jewish Chronicles Online:

England stars’ DVD assists goals for Shoah studies

Politicians challenge extremism in the European Parliament

Other Web Articles:

A book review on The FT: Witness to genocide

Chiune Sugihara, Japan Diplomat Who Saved 6,000 Jews During Holocaust, Remembered, a Huffington Post article

App review on The Guardian: New photos, videos and app shed fresh light on Anne Frank’s family life

A Lens On Prewar Europe, The Jewish Week reviews a major exhibit at the ICP (International Center of Photography)

Holocaust Posts on this blog

Gratitude in French Village

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I have already written about Le Chambon-sur-Lignon, a large French village but I had never been there. Driving south last week, we decided to stop there.

Unfortunately it was pouring with rain so all we saw was the Protestant temple where the people who protected the Jews during WWII worshipped and across the road the plaque that was put up to thank these righteous citizens.

“a farming village called Le Chambon-sur-Lignon made history by harboring some 5,000 refugees, most of them Jews, many of them children. A good deal of sacrifice was involved. The village basically doubled its size. Families took in children and their parents, making them feel as though they were fellow “Chambonnais” (citizens of Le Chambon), going to school, working on the farms, sharing meals, and so forth. There was great risk involved. The village became a center for the forgery of documents. It was obvious that Jews had virtually doubled the population of this remote village. The Nazis were not entirely stupid. Occasionally they would raid the village and interrogate the people, asking them about the children. But the Chambonnais stood firm.

The story gets more interesting. Almost all of the Chambonnais were Huguenot Christians. France had persecuted Protestants heavily, especially during the eighteenth century. Those who did not flee, and those who were not put to death for their faith, survived in particular pockets of the country. They kept the memories alive by meeting in worship, hearing the Bible preached by their pastors, and singing the psalms as well as folk songs that recounted their story. They felt a special affinity for the Jews. Le Chambon became the safest place in Europe for refugees from the Nazi horrors.”

The Germans knew something was going on. They had lists of the citizens, and some of the names were demonstrably Jewish. But a number of their soldiers were tired of their own disturbing tactics. At least one of them, fairly high up, decided to ignore the names on the lists. The comment in the documentary says of him, “You just never know who might get caught up in a conspiracy of goodness.”

excerpted from A Conspiracy of Goodness by William Edgar

The text of the plaque reads: “The memory of the just will always be remembered.” Psalm 112:6.

Alternate translation: “For the righteous will never be moved; they will be remembered for ever.”

“Tribute to the Protestant community of this Cevennes ground, and to all of those who followed its example, believers and non-believers who, during the Second World War, 1939-1945, united against Nazi crimes, in peril of their lives under the occupation hid, protected and saved all the oppressed by the thousands.

The Jewish refugees in Le Chambon-sur-Lignon and the nearby communities.”

More posts on the topic on this blog:
Righteous Among the Nations
Oasis of Peace

Oasis of Peace

This is the nickname that was given to the French village of Dieuleufit in the Drôme during WWII when it served as a haven for fleeing refugees, most of them Jews.

The OSE, a French Jewish humanitarian organization, sent dozens of children to this village where they were hidden by Marguerite Soubeyran, the head mistress of the Beauvallon school, or by local people. As in Le Chambon-sur-Lignon, most of these people were Protestants.

We stopped in this village on our way to the South of France yesterday. It is a very picturesque place and as the weather was beautiful we spent some time walking through the village. The Protestant community there is still quite strong. I read their church notice and it was quite interesting to see that they have links with the Jewish community in Valence and that they have Hebrew lessons at different levels for their parishioners.

A number of the villagers were declared Righteous Among the Nations by Yad Vashem.

Jews in Postwar East Germany

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While numerous Jews fled Germany before, during or after WWII or stayed there for want of a better place, a number of Jews actually chose to return to East Germany in 1945 in the hope of helping to establish a “Workers’ and Peasants’ State”.

They were socialists and communists who wished to take part in the creation of a new country that would be free of all the evils that had led to Hitler’s rise to power. Such Jews included writers Anna Seghers and Arnold Zweig, literary scholar Hans Meyer and philosopher Ernst Bloch.

These people were not numerous, an estimated several hundreds, but were soon disappointed. Immediately after the end of the war, restitution became an important issue in both West and East Germany but in the latter the Communist Party refused to contribute, considering that East Germany was innocent of the Nazi past. Moreover retribution was viewed as a “bourgeois” gesture.

In addition Stalinist party purges in Eastern Europe, accompanied by anti-Semitic show trials in Prague and Budapest sparked fear among Jews in East Berlin. Jews who were communist party members often found themselves accused of being “Zionist agents” or “Jewish nationalists” As a result in early 1953, more than 600 Jews escaped to the West within a six-week period.

It was not until the fall of the Berlin Wall that things improved for the Jews of East Germany. In 1989, around 1,000 Jews, most of them elderly, were living in the German Democratic Republic – thus the Jewish community in East Berlin amounted to fewer than 500 people. After the fall of the Berlin Wall in November 1989 and the peaceful downfall of the East German regime, the new GDR government under Lothar de Maizière allowed Jews from the then crumbling Soviet bloc into Germany. When the two Germanys later reunited in October 1990, this ruling was upheld.

You can read about Jews in Postwar West Germany here.

German Jews After World War II

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I have just read a fascinating book, L’impossible Retour (The Impossible Return,) by Olivier Guez, a French journalist and writer.

Before the Nazis came to power in 1933, about 600,000 Jews lived in Germany. – more than 160,000 in Berlin alone. At the end of the war, only 14,000 remained. Half of the German Jews had been exterminated, the rest had gone into exile.

However strange this may seem, some German Jews chose to remain in Germany and about 10,000 more settled there after the war. Olivier Guez decided to investigate and find out why these people had stayed there instead of settling in the USA or in Israel (then still called Palestine) like most Holocaust survivors.

The majority the Jews who stayed in Germany were very assimilated people who had very little contact, if any, with the Jewish community. Some had managed to survive thanks to their Gentile friends or non-Jewish spouses. They selected their friends and didn’t feel too uncomfortable living in Germany. Others just couldn’t envisage living elsewhere while they remained cautious about the Germans all their lives.

The people who settled there after the war didn’t choose Germany. They were DPs (Displaced Persons) – in other words refugees from Eastern Europe. The majority were inmates of Nazi concentration camps who ended up in yet other camps before they could find a place to call home. They had obviously no desire to go back to the countries they came from. A number of Western countries issued them visas, mainly the USA, Israel, Canada and the UK.

However some were too sick to travel or to get a visa and their children didn’t want to leave them behind. That’s why they finally settled in the very country which had tried to eliminate them. They had more ambivalent feelings towards their new country and the Germans – they did not share the same culture as those who had been raised in Germany. In addition they often felt guilty: because they were still alive and because they had remained in Germany. As a result they led a very secluded life and had no German friends.

Olivier Guez also met people who had tried to live in Israel but had come back to a country where they felt more at ease. Sometimes it was their children who later settled in Israel. He also met German Jews who had chosen to live or go back to GDR (East Germany) and who had a totally different – even if no better – experience. I’ll try to write about them in another post.

Apparently there is no English translation of the book, which is a shame, but its author gives lectures abroad.

Righteous Among the Nations

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I am currently reading a book of testimonies about the Jews who were saved by a whole village – Le Chambon-sur-Lignon – during WW2. Theses testimonies were written by some of the Jews who were saved by the villagers; there are also a few portraits of the people who saved them.

A few years ago I attended a lecture by someone who is a volunteer at the French Committee for Yad Vashem. One of their actions is to identify and honor non-Jews who risked their lives to save Jews during the Holocaust. He explained how this is done. He also detailed the reasons why these people acted as they did.

– Some people saved Jews because they believed in the values of the French republic they had chosen to serve or work for, before the start of the war obviously. These people were mayors, State representatives, civil servants or judges. This category also includes trade unionists and political activists. Even though the latter did not work for the state, they were motivated by political ideals.

– Some people saved Jews simply because it seemed the right thing to do at a given moment. Contrary to those mentioned above, they did not act according to theorized ideals and values. They just did what they deemed right.

– The last category is made up of Christians. As concerns France, some Catholics did not follow the hierarchy and protected Jews. For instance some Jewish children were hidden by priests or nuns in Catholic boarding schools under a false identity. Protestant are a small minority in France and most of them did not aprove of the German invasion of France. Not all of them resisted of course but they usually did not support Petain and the Vichy government.

The people in Le Chambon-sur-Lignon belong to the last category. Most of them were Protestants who regularly read the Bible and saw themselves as spiritual descendents of the Jewish people. Therefore protecting Jews by hiding them and providing them with food and lodgings seemed a logical thing to do. In addition to the local hospitality, children’s homes were set up in the village by Jewish and non-Jewish humanitarian organizations to welcome orphaned children and teenagers.

It is estimated that these villagers – most of whom were farmers – saved between 3,000-5,000 Jews from certain death. In 1990, for their humanitarianism and bravery under extreme danger, the entire village was recognized as “Righteous Among the Nations”. Only Niewlande, a Dutch village, has been awarded the same title.