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Remembrance tourism in France and the Pyrenees

The image of Southern France is not immediately associated with concentration camps. But there were many of them in the region during the Second World War. One of the most significant was Rivesaltes, near Perpignan.

Today Rivesaltes is best known for its delicious muscat wine and local airport. That is about to change; a memorial museum for the camp is due to open in autumn.

Not everyone likes the idea of attracting visitors for such a tragic purpose. Better they go to the beach or skiing in the Pyrenees. But more and more people have been following a path of remembrance in France recently, visiting cemeteries, landing beaches and museums. This is travel for a deeper purpose than a holiday or relaxation, travel to learn more about the world, and the stories that help us to understand it better.

After the publication of my own book, Love and War in the Pyrenees, numerous people wrote to me and said they were using it at as a travel guide. They found the border points like Cerbère, Le Perthus and Prats-de-Mollo, where wartime refugees had crossed the mountains. They visited the Mediterranean beaches of Argelès, St Cyprien and Le Barcares, where the Spanish Republicans fleeing Franco were held in squalid camps. They went to Valmanya, the village burnt to the ground in reprisal in 1944, and to the
museums at Chateau Valmy and La Jonquera.

Rivesaltes is another such place. The site is an old army camp, covering 4000 square metres of the arid Roussillon plain, overlooked by the craggy outline of the Corbières hills. It is hot, dry and subject to the terrifying blast of the Tramontane wind. The French army considered it unsuitable even for horses, yet several thousand refugees ended up there; initially Spanish, then Jews and other “undesirables.”

It became a collection point for the mass deportations in 1942 and was described as “the Drancy of the South” by Nazi-hunter Serge Klarsfeld. Altogether 2,251 Jews, including 110 children, were sent from here to Drancy and on to Auschwitz.

In 1998 all that remained were crumbling barracks and latrines and a lot of barbed wire. The army was about to bulldoze the lot when Christian Bourquin, the late president of the Languedoc-Roussillon region, stepped in to save it.

The new museum is designed by Rudi Ricciotti,. Aptly, perhaps, at a time when interfaith understanding is at a raised premium, he was the architect responsible for the undulating glass roof of the Louvre’s new Islamic Art department. The Rivesaltes museum is intended to be as modest as possible, opaque and sunk into the ground, in order not to overwhelm the fragile vestiges that remain.

Last summer a ceremony was held in Canet-en-Roussillon in memory of Mary Elmes, an Irishwoman who worked for the Quakers in Perpignan from 1940-1945. Elmes was awarded the Righteous Among the Nations medal, given to those who risked their lives to help Jews escape the holocaust.

One escapee, Ron Friend, now a psychology professor in the USA, was at the ceremony. He had been rescued from the camp as a two year old then called René Freund. His father ended up in Auschwitz. He recently discovered that Mary was his rescuer. He described to me his first visit to the camp: “There are just the remains of the railway lines that carried them away, the barracks, that is all there is left. It’s just crumbling away!” He is concerned that the ruins should be preserved.

But it is a difficult issue; how to keep the memory of these tragedies alive.

Rivesaltes almost went the way of most of the other 40 or so camps that existed in the South; most have vanished without a trace. There is a memorial at Gurs near Pau, a small museum in Le Vernet in the Ariège, and the camp at Les Milles near Marseille where traces of murals by artist Max Ernst form the basis of a museum.

In Limousin, in central France, is the small village of Oradour–sur-Glane, site of a terrible reprisal at the end of the war in 1944. All the men were rounded up and shot. 247 women and 205 children were locked in the church and burnt to death. The entire village was set alight. The ruins have been left, as they were, a heartbreaking sight. Access is through the excellent museum, so you fully understand what you are seeing. However the ruins are deteriorating rapidly, and will cost a great deal to restore and maintain.

Should ruins be preserved or allowed to crumble back into the earth? They are profoundly, deeply evocative, but perhaps the creation of museums such as that at Rivesaltes is the real solution.

About the author – Rosemary Bailey

Rosemary Bailey is author of several travel books about France, including Love and War in the Pyrenees, published by Weidenfeld & Nicolson (2008).