Have you visited the Mémorial du Camp de Rivesaltes yet?
Camp Joffre opened in 1938 and closed in 1970. Its history is horrific. In that first year it changed in the blink of an eye from housing for the troops to housing for “Undesirables”. Soon refugees from the Spanish Civil War, Jews and Gipsies joined the “Undesirables”. So handy for the railway. Destination: Auschwitz, via Drancy.
After the signing of the armistice, France was split into two and the « zone libre » in which the Pyrenees-Orientales was included, came under the administration of the Vichy government, a close ally of Germany.
In January 1941, the Vichy regime opened the ‘Centre d’Hébergement de Rivesaltes’ (Rivesaltes Accommodation Centre) on the camp premises for interning ‘Sinti and Roma’, (Gypsies) political opponents and Jews. It was at this point that the sad and sinister history of the camp Joffre began to unfold.
With a capacity of 8000, it was not long before the camp was overcrowded, families were separated, and conditions deteriorated enormously. In fact, Due to the length of time it operated and given the number of people who were interned, imprisoned or confined there, Rivesaltes is now considered the largest internment camp in Western Europe.
In 1942, under German pressure, the camp became a ‘Centre national de rassemblement des Israélites’ – a ‘sorting centre’ for Jews who were then sent on to the death camps such as Auschwitz, via Drancy. Two thousand five hundred and fifty one Jews are recorded as having been deported from Rivesaltes – four hundred of them were children.
Today a museum stands on the site, a silent witness to man’s inhumanity to man.
The History of the Memorial Museum
The first symbolic stone for the Rivesaltes camp memorial was placed by Christian Bourquin and Georges Freche in 2007 as they recalled the events which lead to the future project becoming a reality on the 42 hectares of land which now belonged to the department.
In 1998, Christian Bourquin refused to allow the demolition of the ruins of the camp barracks and the idea of a memorial was born. The greatest difficulty concerned the many different peoples and religions who suffered there – who should the memorial honour? Jews, gypsies, Spanish refugees, French Algerians, homosexuals…..even Germans imprisoned there after the liberation….?
It was finally decided by a ‘jury’ led by French architect and designer Rudy Ricciotti that It’s role should be to “account for the history of internment in France during the second world war, the camp from 1930 to present times, and the help and assistance given” The project was directed by Denis Peschanski, specialist in the terrible history of the camps in France during the second world war. Housed in a unique building, the museum earned its architect, Rudy Ricciotti, the Equerre d’Argent prize.
The one stumbling block which left a bitter taste in the mouths of all concerned was the high price that the department had to pay to the state for the land, instead of the hoped-for symbolic sum of money for something that concerns all humanity.
The Memorial Museum today
The 4,000-square-meter award winning building is made up of a long single-story sunken construction in concrete, monolith style, broken up by narrow patios. Inside, the only view is of the sky, visible through a few roof windows and the patios.
The permanent exhibition in the main gallery consists of a 30-meter-long interactive table featuring videos, interviews, maps, documents and objects related to Camp Joffre and other internment camps in France, personal stories of internees, and archive videos.
Outside, the desolate, abandoned barracks and ruins of the former camp emphasise the stark reality represented within the Memorial museum.
Described as ‘un musée de la grandeur de l’homme libre, pour un mémorial non de la défaite mais du combat, pour un musée de l’homme digne et debout’ (A museum to show how great is the free man, a memorial of combat, not of defeat, a museum showing man dignified and standing tall), you will not come away unmoved.
Check out their website www.memorialcamprivesaltes.eu or visit their Facebook page for temporary exhibitions, film screenings, concerts, lectures, and live performances taking place in the museum’s 145-seat cinema/auditorium throughout the year.
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