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Gurs Camp

HistoryWorks

Gurs Camp, close to the Pyrenees, was the largest camp in the Unoccupied Zone. During its first four years - from March 1939 to November 1943 - it held 21,790 men, women and children.[1] The camp was divided into îlots (islands), each separated by barbed wire fencing. Men and women were kept apart and going from one "island" to another demanded special permission, which could only be obtained by an extremely laborious procedure. Life consisted of constant improvisation, as there were not even basic items of furniture. The lack of food and scarcity of water caused widespread outbreaks of disease. The camp had been built on non-porous soil, so when it rained, it turned into a mud bath, making it very difficult to go from one barrack to another.

Gradually foreigners of various nationalities were interned in Gurs, mostly Germans and Austrians. They included a large number of Jews, of whom about 4,000 had been deported from the Third Reich (from the provinces of Baden and the Palatinate).[2] These Jews of Baden, many of whom had converted to Christianity, were in a state of shock; they had been given one day to pack their personal belongings (up to 50 kilos) and then found themselves suddenly cut off from their bourgeois life. As a result, the death and suicide rates among them were high. In a short time over 800 were buried in the Gurs graveyard.[3]

Despite deteriorating conditions the inmates at Gurs were determined to maintain cultural and artistic activity. From March 1941 one barrack in each "island" was turned into a kind of "cultural center" where lectures, concerts, classical plays and cabarets were held. The actors received extra food as payment, as a poem by Heini Walfisch ("Theater in Gurs") describes:

    We act for our living
    Whatever that means
    For Ibsen - a slice of bread
    For Shakespeare - an egg
    And maybe some semolina
    [4]

There was also a lot of artistic activity in the visual arts in Gurs, with exhibitions of drawings and paintings. The main burst of creativity started to diminish towards the summer of 1942 when there began to be mass deportations from the camps of the South of France to those in the north (particularly Drancy). From there the inmates were deported to the death camps of Eastern Europe.


(Dr Pnina Rosenberg)


[1] Claude Laharie. Le camp de Gurs 1939-1945, un aspect méconnu de ';historie de Vichy. J. & D., Infocompo, Pau, 1993 (reprint of first edition of 1948), p.219

[2] On the exile of Jews from Baden and the palatinate see Joseph Weill. Contribution à l'historie de camps d'internement dans l'anti-France. Centre de Documentation Juive et Contemporaine, Paris, 1946, pp.22-24

[3] Laharie. Le camp de Gurs. pp.175-187,363

[2] Heini Walfisch. "Théâtre à Gurs" in Schramm. Vivre à Gurs. p.139