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ORIGINAL FRENCH ARTICLE: Sol de Compiègne, sol de mémoire…

by Ixchel Delaporte

Compiègne, A Place to Remember...

Translated Sunday 27 April 2008, by Gene Zbikowski

Visitors to the internment and deportation memorial, which opened on February 23, 2008, learn about life in the Royallieu camp and the French national context during World War II.

A long, white, bunker-like wall stretches along the avenue des Martyrs de la Liberté in Compiègne, 50 miles north of Paris. Behind the wall, a sober and elegant space houses a little bookshop from which you can make out, through the big glass windows, one of buildings of what was Royallieu camp. (1) Two months ago the internment and deportation memorial opened. The historic walk leads to two of the remaining buildings, which are surrounded by the chapel, the escape tunnel, the wall of names and the memorial garden. Why erect a memorial in the Royallieu camp? Because over 45,000 people passed through it. Because it was one of the biggest transit camps in France, from which the Germans deported political prisoners, many of whom were civilian Jewish communists. The first French convoy left Royallieu camp on March 27, 1942. “What happened in Royallieu between 1941 and 1942 was the result of a combination of factors: not only German occupation policy and the relationship between the Germans and Vichy, but also conflicts within the Nazi government, between the center (Berlin) and the outlying areas (the German military command in France), as well as between the German army and the Gestapo,” explained Christian Delage, the historian who is in charge of the historic walk.

One of the biggest transit camps in France.

The main feature on the walls of the dozen rooms that the visitor walks through is the variety of documents that are presented and the way they are put into perspective. The historic walk does not follow a chronological order, instead, there is a continual linking of the history of the camp and the history of occupied France from 1942 to 1944. Compiègne played a role in both the First and Second World Wars. The first room is striking with its audacious and original setting. History repeated itself with the Compiègne railroad car. Two photos are projected on opposite walls: on one wall, the car in which Marshal Foch signed the armistice in Rethondes forest near Compiègne, on November 11, 1918, and on the other wall, the same car, 22 years later, in which Hitler had General Huntzinger sit to sign the armistice on June 22, 1940.

Like the Compiègne railroad car, the camp had a long history, which began in 1913. It started as an army barracks, which was turned into a hospital for wounded World War I soldiers. The Wehrmacht took over Royallieu in June, 1940, and it became “a permanent concentration camp for active enemy elements,” then a “German police detention camp,” more commonly known as Frontstalag 122. It was the first and only camp set up in France under direct German responsibility. In 1941, the first inmates were Russians who were arrested after the invasion of the Soviet Union by the German army. A month later, they were joined by “political” prisoners: trade union, socialist and communist members of the Resistance who were arrested in the occupied zone.

The historical walk is not intended to be exhaustive, but it draws on “non-explicit” propaganda documentary films, newspaper clippings and official letters, both national and local. Vichy France chose to collaborate and organized a hunt for communists and Jews. In the room dedicated to the “rights of the occupation forces,” a map drawn on the floor shows France cut in two. Marshal Pétain’s trips were made in the South, in the unoccupied zone, to avoid calling attention to the boundary line. In the rest of France, Germany laid down the law.

In Compiègne, up until September 1943, the prisoners were able to slip a few letters to their families with the help of the Red Cross nurse, Germaine Pourvoyeur. When German repression became more severe, she also managed to record the names of those shot by firing squad. A serious voice from the ceiling catches the visitor’s ear – it is the audio recording of interviews with two survivors, Jean-Jacques Bernard and chief rabbi Hirschler, who describe the 1941 round-up of Jews in Paris and the 1943 one in Marseilles.

The last room in the first building is titled “internment in Royallieu.” Poet Robert Desnos, who was held in Royallieu, sums up the atmosphere in the camp in a few lines: “I managed to miss the last departure and I really hope to miss the next one. Here, I am with very good and nice people: communists, Gaullists, royalists, parish priests, nobles and peasants. It is an extraordinary melting pot.” There were people from all the Resistance groups, from every region and every walk of life... In camp A, the political prisoners and members of the Resistance were relatively free to move about. At the far end of the camp: the Jews. Beginning in February 1942, a decree officially established the “camp for Jews” in Compiègne, “for deportation purposes” and “as hostages for the future application of reprisal measures.”

Conferences were given in the barracks.

The archives overflow with documents describing daily life in the camp. Drawings, the courses taught to the inmates, engravings, songs, concert programs... Under the orders of the oldest communist, Georges Cogniot, the editor-in-chief of l’Humanité since 1937, the political inmates in camp A organized “a real cultural policy.” Conferences on English, political philosophy, history, the humanities and science were given in the barracks.

In the second building, most of the historical walk is focused on deportation and the concentration camps. There are seven screens for the seven main destinations: Dachau, Auschwitz, Mauthausen, Buchenwald, Ravensbrück, Neuengamme and Sachsenhausen. Witnesses, like Marie-Claude Vaillant-Couturier, Edmond Michelet and Maurice Choquet, recount in documentary films the trip and the living conditions in the concentration camps. The memorial project, financed by the Compiègne region since 1993, has attained its goal. “The creation of the memorial,” said historian Christian Delage, “is part of the change in the way the French write and remember the history of internment and deportation. It promotes a combination of perspectives which, until now, often remained isolated the one from the other.”

Internment and deportation memorial — Royallieu camp
2 bis, avenue des Martyrs-de-la-Liberté
60200 Compiègne.
Open every day except Tuesday from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m.
Telephone: 03 44 96 37 00

(1) Royallieu is the name of the royal abbey that once stood here.

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