Although its official name is Gurs Internment Camp, let’s call it what it really was, a concentration camp. It is also probably one, if not the only time, the Nazis sent Jews westward.
At first, it served as a camp for Spanish republicans and German refugees who fled from Nazism. The Gurs Camp was among the first and one of the largest camps established in prewar France. It was located at the foot of the Pyrenees in Southwestern France, just South of the village of Gurs. The camp, about 50 miles from the Spanish border, was situated in the foothills of the Pyrenees Mountains northwest of Oloron-Sainte-Marie.
The camp measured about 1.4 km (in length and 200 m in width, an area of 28 ha (69 acres). Its only street ran the length of the camp. On either side of the street were plots of land measuring 200 m by 100 m, named îlots (blocks; literally, “islets”). There were seven îlots on one side and six on the other. The plots were separated from the street and from each other by wire fences. The fences were doubled at the back part of the plots to create a walkway along which the exterior guards circulated. In each plot stood about 30 cabins; there were 382 cabins altogether.
In early 1940, the French government interned about 4,000 German Jewish refugees as “enemy aliens” along with French leftist political leaders who opposed the war with Germany. After the French armistice with Germany in June 1940, Gurs fell under the authority of the new collaborationist French government, the Vichy regime.
In October 1940, the Nazi Gauleiter (“governor”) from the Baden region of Germany had also been named Gauleiter of the neighbouring French region of Alsace. In Baden resided some 7,500 Jews, mainly women, children, and the elderly, given that the young and middle-aged men had emigrated or had gone to the Nazi concentration camps.
The Gauleiter received word that the camp at Gurs was mostly empty, and on 25 October 1940, it was decided to evacuate the Jews from Baden (between 6,500 and 7,500) to Gurs as part of Operation Wagner-Bürckel. There, they remained locked up under the French administration. The living conditions were difficult, and illness rife, especially typhus and dysentery.
The deportation of the German Jews to Gurs in October 1940 is a unique case in the history of the Holocaust. IT WAS the only deportation of Jews carried out toward the west of Germany by the Nazi regime.
Conditions in the Gurs camp were very primitive. It was overcrowded and there was a constant shortage of water, food, and clothing. During 1940–41, some 800 detainees died of contagious diseases, including typhoid fever and dysentery.
One in four of the deportees died in Gurs or other French camps, 11 per cent succeeded in emigrating overseas, 12 per cent hid out in France, and 40 per cent (around 2,600 deportees) were transported to Auschwitz after July 1942. The fate of the remaining 600 deportees is unknown.
The Vichy regime turned over the Jews who were located in Gurs to the Nazis. On 18 July 1942, the SS captain, Theodor Dannecker, inspected the camp and then ordered that they prepare themselves to be transported to Eastern Europe. The Nazis sent the majority of them to the Drancy transit camp just outside of Paris. From Drancy, they were deported in six convoys to the killing centres in Poland, primarily Auschwitz.
Vichy authorities closed the Gurs camp in November 1943. Almost 22,000 prisoners had passed through Gurs, of whom over 18,000 were Jewish. More than 1,100 internees died in the camp. In 1944, Gurs was reopened briefly to intern political prisoners and resistance fighters arrested by Vichy police.
From 25 August to 31 December 1945, Nazi collaborators and hundreds of anti-Franco militants were interned. In total 3,370 persons, exclusively men.