Many of us are following a path of remembrance in France this year, in memory of 1914 and 1944, 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 explain it. After Love and War in the Pyrenees came out, numerous people wrote to me and said they were using it at as a travel guide. They visited border crossings like Cerbère, Le Perthus and Prats-de-Mollo, where wartime refugees had crossed the mountains, the Mediterranean beaches of Argelès, St Cyprien and Le Barcares where the Spanish Republicans fleeing Franco were held in squalid camps , Valmanya, the village burnt to the ground in reprisal in 1944, the museums at Chateau Valmy and La Jonquera.
One of those places is Rivesaltes, near Perpignan, one of the wartime concentration camps in Southern France. Rivesaltes is better known for its delicious muscat wine and its airport. But that is about to change; soon it will be known for the camp memorial museum, due to open in 2015. Not everyone likes that idea. ( And the name of the airport has been changed in advance to Sud de France.)
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; hot, dry and subject to the terrifying blast of the Tramontane wind. It was considered unsuitable for horses by the army, but several thousand refugees ended up there; initially Spanish, then Jews and other “undesirables.” It became a collection point for the massive deportations in 1942- the Drancy of the South – and 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 the new president of the Pyrenées Orientales department, the late Christian Bourquin, stepped in to save it. The new museum is designed by Marseille architect, Rudi Ricciotti, (who is also responsible for the undulating glass roof of the new Islamic Art department of the Louvre.) It is intended to be as modest as possible, opaque and sunk into the ground, in order not to overwhelm the fragile vestiges that remain. But it is a painful and 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 Ariege, and the camp at Les Milles near Marseille where traces of murals by Max Ernst among other artists interned there form the basis of a museum. But most have gone. Howe to preserve ruins? Oradour –sur-Glane, a village in the Limousin, was the site of a terrible reprisal at the end of the war. All the men were rounded up and shot, 247 women and 205 children 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. But 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 even so; the museums are what is important. Visiting these places is about people and their stories. I visited a museum in the tiny Pyrenean village of St Laurent de Cerdans some time ago. It is famous for its striped Catalan fabric and espadrilles, but there I found a small museum devoted to the passeurs, who guided refugees over the mountains – in both directions, fleeing Franco and Hitler. There I saw a pair of frayed and dusty old espadrilles worn by one of the passeurs. This triggered my search for the wartime history of the Pyrenees, and it began with a museum. For more on this subject GO to Love and War in the Pyrenees page- The Story Continues …..