On November 12, 1938 the French state announced an administrative law on the detention of “undesirable foreigners”, which gave the legal grounds to arrest and detain individuals who, although they had not committed any crimes, posed an alleged threat to the country. The first victims of this law included the Spaniards and mercenary soldiers banished from Spain after Franco’s victory. At the beginning of February 1939, over 450,000 people who crossed the border in the Pyrenees found themselves in camps organised on the beaches of Roussillon, Argelès-sur-Mer, Saint-Cyprien and Barcarès. Many of them were later transferred to Rivesaltes.
The construction of the military camp “Camp Joffre” began in the autumn of 1939. Initially the area of over 600 ha was intended only for military barracks, but due to the shortage of infrastructure where thousands of detainees could be housed, the Rivesaltes camp was re-purposed and became an internment camp.
On January 14, 1941, the first transports of prisoners from other camps arrived in Rivesaltes. They comprised of Spaniards, Jews and Gypsies, who for the past several months had been deported from Alsace-Moselle, a territory connected with the Reich.
While initially no internees from the Vichy area were transferred to the camp, in the summer of 1942, 10,000 Jews from the Vichy zone arrived at the camp – with their arrival treated as evidence of cooperation between the French government and the German occupier. From Rivesaltes they were sent to the Drancy transit camp near Paris, and then – most often – to the Auschwitz-Birkenau extermination camp. During nearly two years of existence of the camp in Rivesaltes, 17,500 people were interned, including 53% Spaniards, 40% Jews (foreigners) and 7% Gypsies (French). On November 22, 1942, about ten days after taking over the southern zone, Germans emptied the camp of prisoners and restored its original function as military barracks for soldiers defending the coast.
In April 1945, the camp became a place of internment of prisoners of war, mainly Germans, but also Austrians and even Italians at times. Similarly to the situation in other camps, 10,000 prisoners were decimated due to high mortality rate caused by poor conditions.
The history of the camp does not end with the end of World War II. After the end of the Algerian War, the so-called Harkisi, former helpers of the French army in Algeria, with their families were transferred to Riversaltes from smaller centres created earlier on four Mediterranean islands. Rivesaltes became a refugee camp, and the last families left it only in 1977.
Later this huge area was again turned into the original military barracks, but for some time, between 1986 and 2007 there was still a separate part of the camp used to detain foreigners staying illegally in France. Ultimately, however, this centre was moved to Perpignan so Rivesaltes could remain a memorial place.
Today, over a huge area – in a beautiful location – there are ruins of stone barracks with varying degrees of decay. They include residential barracks and latrines. The unique impression is enhanced by the fact that the buildings look relatively contemporary and the nature in southern France is quite charming.
Inside the camp area one can see a new red, concrete building, which houses the headquarters of the Memorial du Camp de Rivesaltes with offices and a permanent exhibition devoted to the history of the camp and a place designated for exhibitions and educational campaigns.
Description of commemoration
The stele that commemorates the Jews deported from the Rivesaltes camp to Auschwitz was erected in 1994. Another stele, dedicated to the Harkis was unveiled in December 1995, and in 1999 yet another stele was erected in tribute to the Spanish Republicans. After a period of political turmoil, a special commission was created to work on establishing a memorial. In January 2006, architect Rudy Ricciotti, supported by Passelac and Roques, won the international architectural competition – but he did not live to see the opening of the memorial building in 2015.
The building houses a permanent exhibition, which features some exhibits related to Gypsies, including information about their population in the camp (7% i.e. 1330 prisoners were Gypsies). The history of the persecution of Gypsies in France is shown on the example of the François Hoffman family, from the Anthropometric Pass to the camps in which he spent the war years: Argeles, Rivesaltes, Saliers.
Date of the unveiling
January 16, 1944
October 16, 2015 – memorial
MEMORIAL DU CAMP DE RIVESALTES
Avenue Christian BOURQUIN
66 600 SALSES LE CHATEAU
04 68 08 39 70
<iframe src=”https://www.google.com/maps/embed?pb=!1m18!1m12!1m3!1d1365.148977262939!2d2.8906018217954164!3d42.808911994695734!2m3!1f0!2f0!3f0!3m2!1i1024!2i768!4f13.1!3m3!1m2!1s0x0%3A0x0!2zNDLCsDQ4JzMyLjEiTiAywrA1MyczMC4xIkU!5e1!3m2!1spl!2spl!4v1537307105238″ width=”600″ height=”450″ frameborder=”0″ style=”border:0″ allowfullscreen></iframe>
Alexandre DOULUT, Les Tsiganes au Camp de Rivesaltes, Editeur: Liénard 2016.
List of camps for the Gypsies in France: https://fr.wikipedia.org/wiki/Liste_des_camps_d%27internement_de_%C2%AB_nomades_%C2%BB_en_France
Photographs from Rivesaltes, source: United States Holocaust Memorial Museum: https://collections.ushmm.org/search/?utf8=%E2%9C%93&q=rivesaltes&search_field=all_fields