Dhe writer Lion Feuchtwanger had imagined his stay in France differently. “Liberty, Equality, Fraternity was huge over the portal of the mayor’s office, we had been celebrated (…), it was an honor for France to host us, the President of the Republic had received me. So now they locked us up,” wrote Feuchtwanger, who had fled Germany from the Nazi dictatorship.
Like tens of thousands of other “enemy aliens” and Jews, the writer was interned in the Les Milles camp near Aix-en-Provence in 1940. His experiences can be read as a “report from hell” in his book “The Devil in France” (Aufbau-Verlag). President Emmanuel Macron came to the former detention center on the holiday highway to the south on Monday. He was accompanied by the “Nazi hunters” Beate and Serge Klarsfeld and by Herbert Traube, a native of Vienna and a Resistance fighter who managed to escape from the Milles camp in 1942. Traube became involved in the Foreign Legion and settled in Menton on the Riviera. The President laid a wreath on a freight car on the site and commemorated the more than 2,000 Jews who were deported from here to Auschwitz.
Saved from oblivion
Macron paid tribute to the pioneering work of the memorial, which opened ten years ago as the first project as part of the European Capital of Culture Marseille-Provence. The head of the memorial, Alain Chouraqui, is doing ambitious educational work to sensitize schoolchildren to how awareness of violations of fundamental rights can be dulled in a democracy. He organizes workshops for police officers, gendarmes, judges and other state officials, in which they reflect on their own role in the face of identitarian and nationalist radicalization.
In doing so, he also takes into account the fact that it was not the Nazi occupiers who ordered the French government to intern the foreigners. The camp prisoners included many who were well-known in the German intellectual and artistic scene: Golo Mann, Franz Hessel, Friedrich Wolf, painters such as Max Ernst and Hans Bellmer, and Nobel Prize winners such as the chemist Thadeus Reichstein and the biochemist Otto Meyerhof. They fled to France because they hoped the “motherland of human rights” would protect them from persecution.
When the war broke out, the refugees became enemies of the state. “We took it with a kind of bitter equanimity, these years had made the volatility of human behavior very vividly before our eyes,” wrote Feuchtwanger. They were penned up in the brick factory, which had just been shut down, and had to sleep on straw in the brick dust. Later, children were imprisoned in the camp “from the age of one” until they were deported. “We know how civilized peoples can slip into horror,” Chouraqui said. “It took 30 years of stubborn struggle (…) before Milles’ camp was rescued from oblivion,” said President Macron. The camp was “not an accident of history”, but the result of the erosion of democratic values. The camp was a place “of the crimes of the French state,” Macron judged.
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