After the Vichy government signed an armistice with the Nazis in 1940, it became a concentration camp for Jews of any nationality except French, as well as people considered dangerous by the government. After France's liberation, Gurs housed German prisoners of war and French collaborators. Before its final closure in 1946, the camp also held former Spanish Republican fighters who participated in the Resistance against the German occupation, because their decided will to end the fascist dictatorship imposed by Franco made them threatening in the eyes of the Allies.
For the site they chose an extended hill with a flat back, of clay soil, whose agricultural use was virtually nil: a little bit of corn and pasture for cattle. Construction began on March 15, 1939, and was still incomplete when the first group of refugees arrived on April 4.
In each parcel stood about 30 cabins; there were 382 cabins altogether. This particular type of cabin had been invented for the French army during the First World War; they had been built close to the front but outside the range of the enemy artillery, and they served to accommodate soldiers during the few days between when the soldiers arrived at their barracks and awaited their trench assignment. They were assembled from thin planks of wood and covered with tarred fabric, all identical in construction and size. They were not provided with windows or other insulation. They did not offer protection from the cold, and the tarred fabric soon began to deteriorate, allowing rainwater to enter the cabins. Closets were nonexistent, and residents slept on sacks of straw gathered place on the floor. Despite the fact that each cabin had an area of only 25 square meters, each cabin had to lodge up to 60 people during times of peak occupancy.
Food was scarce and poor in quality; there was no sanitation, running water, or plumbing. The camp had poor drainage. The area, due to its proximity to the Atlantic Ocean, receives a great deal of rain, which made the clay campgrounds permanently muddy. The inmates made paths with the few stones they could find in a pathetic attempt to keep the mud in check. Pieces of wire that had been stripped of their barbs were placed between the cabins and the toilets and used by the refugees like the railing of a staircase, to maintain balance on the unsteady ground.
In each îlot there were rudimentary toilets, not very different from the sort of troughs that would be used to feed animals. There was also a platform about 2 meters high, which one climbed using steps, and upon which were built additional toilets. Under the platform there were large tubs that collected excrement. Once they were full they were transported out of the camp in carts.
One feature of the camp was that the wire fences were only two meters high; they were not electrified, and they did not have lookout towers filled with guards pointing their machine guns at the internees. The atmosphere was radically different from an extermination camp: there were no executions or displays of sadism on the part of the guards.
Around the camp there were small buildings that housed the administration and the guard corps. The administration and care of the camp was conducted under military auspices until the fall of 1940, when a civil administration was installed by the Vichy regime.
From 1939 to the autumn of 1940, the language that dominated in the camp was Spanish. The inmates created an orchestra and constructed a sports field. On July 14, 1939, Bastille Day, the 17,000 internees of Spanish origin arranged themselves in military formation in the sports field and sang La Marseillaise, followed by sports presentations and choral and instrumental concerts.
The German members of the International Brigade edited a newspaper in German by the name of "Lagerstimme K.Z. Gurs" of which there were more than 100 editions. The inhabitants of neighboring places could come to the camp and sell food to the inmates. For a time, the commander permitted some imprisoned women to rent a horse and cart and let them leave to camp to buy provisions more economically. There was a postal service and visits were also occasionally permitted.
In contrast to the Spaniards, for whom there was generally sympathy, the internees from the second waves were known as "les indésirables", the undesirables.
Seven hundred of the prisoners, interned only for the reason of their nationality or for being sympathetical to the Nazi regime, were liberated between August 21 — the date of the arrival of the inspection commission sent by the German government to Gurs — and October. The Vichy government used the camp to lock up:
The Gauleiter received word that the camp at Gurs was mostly empty, and on October 25, 1940, it was decided to evacuate the Jews from Baden (between 6,500 and 7,500) to Gurs as part of Operation Wagner-Bürckel. They remained locked up there under French administration. The living conditions were even more difficult, and during the year that they remained in the camp, more than a thousand fell victim to illness, especially typhus and dysentery.
Of the survivors, some 700 managed to escape and almost 2.000 finally obtained visas that permitted them to emigrate. The rest, several thousand, remained in the camp, and males in the best physical condition were imprisoned in French work gangs.
The deportation of the German Jews to Gurs in October 1940 is a unique case in the history of the Holocaust. On one hand, it deals with the only deportation of Jews carried out toward the west of Germany by the Nazi regime. On the other hand, the Wannsee conference in which the above mentioned extermination program was delineated, did not take place until January 1942.
Precise information on the motive of this deportation have not been found. There only exists the suspicion that it could have involved setting into motion the Madagascar Plan, an initiative of Adolf Eichmann designed to transport the entire Jewish population of Europe to the island of that name. If this was the case, this deportation would be the only known attempt to carry this plan forward. The protests of the French government avoided subsequent actions in this direction.
Once the program for the eradication of the Jews was put into motion in the camps in Poland, the Vichy regime turned over the 5,500 Jews who were located in Gurs to the Nazis. On July 18, 1942, the SS captain, Theodor Dannecker, inspected the camp and then ordered that they prepare themselves to be transported to Eastern Europe. Beginning on August 6, they were sent in convoys to the Drancy deportation camp, on the outskirts of Paris, and later many were murdered in extermination camps. The majority of them were sent to Auschwitz.
In 1979, on the 40th anniversary of the creation of the camp, the region's youth started to air the forgotten history of the camp by inviting old inmates to conferences and lectures. The event was well-publicized by the French, German, and Spanish press; as a result, the next year there was a reunion at Gurs on June 20—21. The reunion drew a hundred former detainees, who came from many different countries. Also in attendance were people associated with the French resistance and survivors of the Nazi death camps. Together, these people created an organization called L'Amicale de Gurs. This organization developed an official newsletter called L'apell de Gurs, which was full of emphatic catchphrases such as, Gurs, a symbol of combat and the suffering of the peoples of Europe," and "Gurs, a concentration camp, calls for vigilance, for unity, and for action; actions taken so that man can live in freedom and dignity.
Since this date, a commemorative ceremony has been held annually. Some of the main participants in this ceremony have been Jewish organizations, representatives of citizens of Baden, former exiles, their relatives, and people of diverse nationalities who, by their presence, hope to point out the duty of every generation to remember the criminal acts of the dictatorial regimes that assaulted Europe during the 20th century.
Today the camp contains a reconstruction of a triangular cabin as a testimony to the hundreds of identical cabins that were lived in by the inmates. Like the original cabins, the reconstruction was made from thin slabs of wood covered in tarred cardboard. A few monuments recall the camp of the Gursiens, a name that was first used by the inhabitants of nearby towns to refer to the inmates and that was ultimately adopted by the inmates themselves.
After the liberation in 1944, The French Association of Jewish communities of the Basses-Pyrénées took charge of Gurs' upkeep and erected a monument to the camp's victims. As the years passed, though, the cemetery itself fell into disrepair. Hearing of this disrepair, the mayor of Karlsruhe in 1957 took the initiative to have his city assume responsibility for the conservation of the camp, supported by the Jewish associations of Baden. He got in touch with the parts of Baden that had deported their Jewish citizens to Gurs so that they could participate in the project. The French state, for its part, gave the federation of Jewish organizations of Baden the right to control the cemetery for the next 99 years. The German cities of Karlsruhe, Freiburg, Mannheim, Heidelberg, Pforzheim, Konstanz and Weinheim now pay the economic costs of the cemetery's upkeep.
Since the year 1985, the camp has had a memorial to the fighters of the Spanish Civil War who were interned in the camp; the camp's cemetery has a section set aside for the members of this group who have died. In the year 2000, the German War Graves Commission performed major renovations on this cemetery.
|Germans and Austrians||9.771|
|Germans from Baden||6.538|
|Arrivals from Saint Cyprien camp||3.870|
|German prisoners of war||310|
|Collaborators with the German occupiers||1.585|
|Total before the liberation||60.559|
|Total after the liberation||3.370|
|Total people interned (1939-1945)||63.929|