A Hidden Gem

We met a new friend a while back, Beth. Another American expat who lives here in Argeles-sur-Mer with her two daughters. She’s a friend of the lovely Lisa who assisted us with Lou’s adoption. Beth and I corresponded via Facebook and email and set a date to meet for coffee. She’s a super fun lady and we really enjoyed getting to know her a bit.

After our initial meet, she sent me a note about a new exhibit in nearby Rivesaltes. The exhibit is on the grounds of the Camp du Rivesaltes, one of the many camps set up during the Spanish Civil War. We were really excited about visiting as were our friends Joan and Greg. We set a date to go visit together. Joan found a lovely winery where we could stop and grab lunch; Greg offered to drive.

Greg’s offer was great. When we finally found this new place without ANY signage to help direct us, we had been traveling for over an hour . . . mostly in circles. Several people helped us out along the way, a lineman working on a telephone line, a truck driver at a utility company, a receptionist at a hotel, an employee at a government building. All of them knew about the place, all of them gave us directions, NONE of them actually helped us find the location. We did get excellent directions to the memorial, but the Camp and the memorial do not share the same space and were on different sides of the freeway. One must be quite specific when requesting directions Camp du Rivesaltes Memorial and Camp du Rivesaltes Museum are two completely different things.

We arrived about 20 minutes before our lunch reservation so we hopped out of Greg’s car and took a quick look around at the buildings and inside the lobby of the museum. Then headed back for lunch into the historic district of Rivesaltes.

Lunch at Cazes was amazing. Joan used to run her own catering business and her ability to find delicious and beautiful food never fails to impress. We had a great lunch, some yummy wine, took a look around the small winery, tasting room and gift store. Across from the entrance to the wine tasting room and gift store (they share the same space) a roll up door allowed us to watch the labeling machine at work. A small assembly line machine with two people at the end of the 8 foot track boxed labeled bottles of wine into boxes. Just past the labeling room toward the restaurant and behind the wine tasting room was a small warehouse filled with barrels of wine. This tiny warehouse faced a lovely outdoor dining area. Definitely worth a return trip!

After lunch and our mini-tour, we headed back to the museum getting lost for just a moment on the return trip.

The camp was like taking a walk through time. Many of the buildings that still exist are easily identifiable: barracks, showers, bathrooms, etc. The museum was built into the ground, like a basement. We were expecting to learn more about the Spanish Civil War and the refugees who fled from Spain and were temporarily housed here.

That isn’t want we found.

The history of the Camp du Rivesaltes was far more complex and covered far more world events. During most of its history, the site at Rivesaltes was both a military camp, it’s original function, and an internment camp. The French War Ministry’s decision to build the camp dates back to 19 December, 1939.

Beginning in 1940 on over 600 hectares of land, 19 blocks were built — 13 of the large quadrilateral buildings were used for housing troops the other six for services. In May of 1940 there were already 12,000 men living there It had been a camp for Spanish Civil War refugees, but also Vichy’s Undesirables during WWII, then a camp for assembling Jews before deportation to Auchwitz, then a transit camp for Harkis after the Algerian War, then it was released to the military.

There are over 600 hectares of land, divided into nineteen blocks: thirteen reserved for accommodation for the troops (large quadrilateral buildings designated with a letter), six for services. It was intended to set up a Transit Center for indigenous colonial troops. The first to arrive were Senegalese battalions. In May 1940, there were already nearly 12,000 men. These troops were to be sent to the Front, and after defeat, were soon followed by others who retreated before being demobilized. The sharp decrease in men in the French army after the signing of the Armistice on June 22, 1940 with victorious Germany, made the vast military camps, like Rivesaltes useless. However, in the context of the new Vichy regime’s exclusion policy, the idea of giving a portion of the site for installing an internment camp became obvious. It was accomplished a few months later. What remains is reminiscent of Manzanar in California. Here there are far more buildings and the museum itself is very modern using technology as a great advantage in telling the story of the camp, the people who were forced to live here and similar places all around France.

It is humbling to spend time in such a place.

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