Memory-Work in Process? The Internment Camp in Gurs

Sarah Noske

Memorial site in Gurs (photo: Dennis Riemann)

In 1939, around 100 internment camps were created in France, among them the one in Gurs at the bottom of the Pyrenees. Originally, this camp was built for refugees leaving Spain in the context of the Spanish Civil War. Under the Vichy Regime, the camp was used primarily for the internment of German Jews, fighters of the Résistance, and so-called hostile foreigners. During this time, the camp consisted of 428 huts, which were composed of little “ilôts” (islands), each “ilôt” separated from others by barbed wire. In 1944, the camp was used for the internment of fleeing Spanish refugees and about 300 members of the Wehrmacht. Because of the bad hygienic conditions, more than 3000 humans died in the internment camp in Gurs.

Gate of the cemetery (photo: Sarah Noske)

The “memory work” at the camp in Gurs began very early, shortly after the end of the Second World War. In 1945, the Jewish communities of the Basses-Pyrénées set up a monument to remember the Jews who had suffered or died in Gurs. In 1957, the mayor of Karlsruhe became aware of the dilapidation of the cemetery in Gurs. As 6504 Jews from Baden had been deported to Gurs in October 1940, he pleaded for the reconstruction of the cemetery. The rebuilt cemetery was officially opened in March 1963. Other communities of Baden were also involved in the renovation of the cemetery. Furthermore, two steles were erected on the grounds of the cemetery: one in the middle of the cemetery in order to commemorate the Jewish victims and another one in the entrance area. It remembers the victims of the International Brigades.

Cemetry (photo: Sarah Noske)

National memorial site by Dani Karavan (photo: Dennis Riemann)

What was once an internment camp now houses the national memorial site, which alludes to the past, but does not represent it. This monument consists of three components: a concrete slab, which is surrounded by barbed wire and represents a symbol for the camp, a railway line, which is 180 metres long, and a reproduction of a typical hut of the camp. Just like the monument “Passages” in Portbou, the national memorial site in Gurs was created by Dani Karavan. Slightly confusing is the construction of the railway line, not only because it did not exist in the actual internment camp, but also because it is not explained clearly that it didn’t exist before. Hence, visitors can get the impression that it has always been there, in other words, that it is “original”.

The railway line is not the only critical point when it comes to the memory culture of the internment camp in Gurs. One could say that the memory of the internment camp in Gurs has different building sites and is therefore under construction: There are several memorial sites, but all are constructed by different agents in different periods of time. Furthermore, there is a hierarchy in remembering the different persons and groups who suffered in the camp. Some groups, such as the Jewish community, are remembered more often than for example refugees who fled the Franco Regime. Finally, no attempt has yet been made to connect the different places of commemoration: On the grounds of the internment camp in Gurs, different building sites of memory exist side by side without any explanation, also because of the involvement of various agents of remembrance. The history of the internment camp in Gurs shows how difficult it is to remember such diverse histories in one place.

Further Reading:
Borgstedt, Angela (2012): “Gurs. Die Deportation der badischen Juden am 22. Oktober 1940,” in: Peter Steinbach, Reinhold Weber, Hans-Georg Wehling (ed.): Baden-württembergische Erinnerungsorte, Stuttgart: Kohlhammer, 472-481.

Mittag, Gabriele (1996): “Es gibt Verdammte nur in Gurs“. Literatur, Kultur und Alltag in einem französischen Internierungslager, 1940-1942, Tübingen: Attempto-Verlag.


This blog post is part of the series “Following the Fugitive.” It is the result of the Master’s seminar “Der Chemin Walter Benjamin – oder: Auf dem Weg zu einer digitalen Fluchtgeschichte” (The Chemin Walter Benjamin, or: Towards a Digital History of Escape) at the Justus Liebig University Gießen, organized by Anne Friedrichs (Mainz) and Bettina Severin-Barboutie (Gießen) in Summer 2019. It was funded by the German Academic Exchange Service (DAAD) and the North Rhine-Westphalian Academy of Sciences, Humanities and the Arts. We thank Fatin Abbas for linguistic support.

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