Republican refugees in a camp in France
Repository: CRAI Biblioteca del Pavelló de la República. Universitat de Barcelona, Barcelona, Spain
Creator: Ferran Rius Tomàs
Fond or Collection
Fons FP. Sèrie Fons Personals. Subsèrie Ferran Riu
Date Created: 1940-09-02
Extent: 1 item
Geographic Region: Gurs, France
The Francoist advance to the Mediterranean, and especially their assault on Catalonia in January 1939, generated a tidal wave of people trying to escape the country. By far the largest number, 440,000 according to an official French report, men, women, and children, civilians and soldiers alike, fled to France in what is known as the Retirada.
The government of Édouard Daladier responded by interning the Spaniards in concentration camps. The first were the primitive “sand camps” hastily thrown up on the beaches at Saint Cyprien, Le Barcarès and Argèles-sur-Mer. Six new camps were established later. Some were purpose built; others were located in existing facilities, such as the military training camp at Rivesaltes that housed 15,000 and the WWI camp at Vernet built to house colonial troops.
Gurs was one of the newly constructed camps. At the outbreak of World War II, it had 14,977 inmates: 9,488 Spaniards and 4,530 members of the International Brigades. This handmade announcement, created by Fernando Rius, a member of the PSUC, in September 1940, ironically advertises it as a deluxe 20,000 room hotel, each “phone, bathroom and fresh air” that offers special rates for “long stays”.
Concerned about the costs of maintaining so many refugees, the French authorities encouraged as many as possible to leave the country. Approximately 250,000 did so by December 1939. Some wound up in Francoist concentration camps.
The Spaniards who remained had to choose among four options. They could accept employment in a local business or on a local farm to make up for the Frenchmen who had been mobilized; enlist in the French Foreign Legion; join the Foreign Worker Companies (CTE), militarized labour units run by the French army; or join the special military units commanded by French officers known as the Batallones de Marcha de Voluntarios Extranjeros. Some 5000 Spaniards joined these battalions and 50,000 found themselves in the CTE. The number of Spaniards in Gurs fell quickly, especially after November 1939. By the time the Germans invaded France in May 1940, only 92 Spaniards remained.
Gurs remained in operation through 1945. Between October 1940 and August 1944, when it was run by Marshal Philippe Pétain’s collaborationist Vichy regime, it held more than 18,000 inmates, including almost 14,000 Non-French Jews. Hannah Arendt was one of them. Of these, 3,907 Jews were handed to the Germans and deported to Auschwitz-Birkenau between August 1942 and March 1943. Vichy also sent its own “undesirables”, including Roma-Sinti, prostitutes, and political prisoners. By the time the Bearn region was liberated, almost 60,000 people had passed through the camp. Over 1,000 had died. Other camps that had housed Republican refugees, including Rivesaltes, also later held other types of prisoners, including Jews who were sent to the Nazi extermination camps.