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.