I would have been an honored guest had I shown up for the ceremony, which I didn’t as it took place on the other side of the Atlantic and, despite the fancy formal invitation that I got nobody offered to pay my way. Besides, I had visited the site a year ago (paying my own way) and been given a private tour of the location and progress being made.
Good thing I knew what has going on because not a single newspaper or broadcast outlet in the United States even mentioned the dedication despite the thousands attending and the messages of “never again will we allow this to happen” that tend to dominate commemorations of places where very bad things happened. At least Google’s everywhere-all-the-time coverage of the news informs me that unless I can read French and some other languages fluently I will need a translator to decode the articles. I can’t, of course, having been in the U.S. since age 4.
The pictures sure were good though and, best of all, a lot of historical ones of the events at that time popped up that had never been there before — and there already had been hundreds. Being my family’s senior surviving member I have been trying to reconstruct a lot of ancestral history that nobody, including myself, knows.
GRANTED, while this particular event was something akin to this nation dedicating the Pearl Harbor or World Trade Center memorials it was of way more interest to the writer than nearly anybody else in this country. That is to be expected. I was there when the original event occurred, although I can’t remember a thing about it being only 3 at the time. It is the nature of how “news” is evaluated. Does it affect you? Well, it certainly affected me. It’s how I wound up in this country.
And, even though this was part of a big overall event that is well known — the Holocaust — a dwindling number today were part of the story. Technically, the writer is a Holocaust survivor though not in same sense as my late aunt who survived one of the death camps. Our family got out, thanks to an American organization rescuing artists, intellectuals and Nazi opponents before the extermination effort kicked into high gear. My aunt’s family didn’t.
At an earlier point my aunt’s family, my family and my grandmother were all rounded up and put into a French — not German — internment camp known as Camp des Milles. That’s the place that was officially turned into a permanent memorial and museum on Sept. 10. It is a huge old former tile factory made of brick just outside of Aix-en-Provence where I was born.
The comings and goings there — about 10,000 were held captive from 1939 to 1942 — are too complicated and detailed to even sum up in the space of a column. Entire books have been written about the place, even a movie made about it ... in French, of course. The final 2,000 occupants were shipped off in cattle cars to the death camps in Germany. They included more than 100 children, some younger than I was when I was there. Only a handful survived.
AND NO, one didn’t have to be Jewish to wind up in Camp des Milles, which also was not the only such camp in France. This is simply the largest one not to already have been obliterated. To wind up there one only had to an “enemy alien” at the outbreak of hostilities (sort of like what the U.S. did to those of Japanese descent in World War II). After France fell and this part of the country became part of Vichy regime allied with the Germans, one only had to be someone whom the Nazis or Vichy French government didn’t like to have around, could not trust.
Between 1938 and 1946, more than 600,000 people were interned in about 200 such camps on French soil, none of them for crimes but simply under an administrative declaration saying they could pose a potential problem to the governing society. Fast forward such a concept, then unopposed other than by mostly those being hauled away, and put it in today’s loud, noisy American differences of political opinion. Wow! Be grateful for what you’ve got, no matter who wins the coming election.
What’s really intriguing, and far more important than any personal aspects, about Camp des Milles and its memorialization is that it represents something the French had long suppressed, much as many native Southerners today may suppress that their ancestors owned slaves. Besides, if they did they certainly treated them well ... right?
In France it was the French, not the Germans, not the Gestapo, that rounded up Jews and other “undesirables” to be sent off to the labor/gassing camps in Germany. More than 76,000 were sent away; only about 2,500 came back. Not only that but for the most part the French government of the time did so rather eagerly and with enthusiasm. Those 100 children shipped out of Camp des Milles? The Germans did not ask for them. The French instead added them in order not to be saddled with caring for all those orphans.
SURE, MANY French citizens did exactly the opposite and in thousands of variations of the Anne Frank story tried to save them ... and often did. But the government, its officials and lackeys? Just the opposite.
Many in France consider all of this the darkest stain on their nation’s history and applauded the permanent memorialization of Camp des Milles as a huge, huge step toward a realization that there is a need to constantly keep alert against allowing the worst in human nature to dominate. A lesson, the speakers declared, that not only France needs but also the entire world.
Of course, back in the 1980s, the French government was planning to tear the place down when, again as with the Resistance in World War II, it was the citizens and not the state that rose to fight any such notion. It took 30 years but France now has a place to remember some of the worst of its history, not just the best. That is pretty rare to have happen — in any country.
Let’s grant that it probably helped that Camp des Milles in its early days (when our family was there) had as prisoners some of top avant-garde artists of the time most of whom, when Hitler took power in 1933, “got out of Dodge” as fast as they could. While imprisoned they did what artists do ... and covered interior walls of the brick factory and even its kilns with murals, drawings, etc. many of which survived. Now retouched and restored to original brilliance they make the memorial a sort of art museum with some of the illustrations having bitingly political/humanist messages.
Those interested in learning a bit more, and wishing to do so in actual English, are directed to a website featuring the new memorial/tourism site at www.marseille-provence.info/aix-en-provence/what-to-see/372-the-memorial-site-of-the-camp-des-milles. It is a good starting place and a Google search will lead readers to much, much more ... although not necessarily in English.
IN ANY CASE, even for those to whom this is not part of their personal history, it is a history that ought to be making a lot more news everywhere than it has and did.
The greatest value of history is in the lessons that it can teach us today as we shape our own history. Both Camp des Milles, circa 1939-42, and Camp des Milles, circa 2012 and for all the years to come, offers a lesson that all of us should know.
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