The Camp des Milles and train wagonBetween 1939 and 1942, Les Milles was an internment camp for political dissidents, artists and intellectuals and, finally, Jews about to be deported to Auschwitz. It has now been restored as a Holocaust memorial.

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A THUMBNAIL HISTORY

Over 10,000 people were interned at the former brick factory on the edge of Aix en Provence under increasingly harsh and over-crowded conditions during this three year period at the beginning of the Second World War.

At first the Camp des Milles was used to house various "undesirables": would-be emigrants awaiting exit visas, political dissidents, enemy aliens from Germany and Austria, former members of the anti-fascist International Brigades from the Spanish Civil War and an exceptionally high proportion of intellectuals and artists.

Many of these had fled from Hitler to locations in the South of France including Marseille and, especially, Sanary sur Mer.

Among them were the Nobel Prize winning physician Otto Fritz Meyerhof, Max Ernst, Golo Mann, Robert Liebknecht and Lion Feuchtwanger who, after escaping to the United States, eloquently described his experiences within the camp in his 1941 memoir, The Devil In France - My Encounter With Him In The Summer Of 1940image!.

Les Milles was not a work camp and the painters, sculptors, writers, actors and musicians had to be endlessly inventive in devising ways to ward off boredom and lift their spirits. Aside from writing and live theatrical and musical shows, over 300 paintings and drawings are thought to have originated there.

Hans Bellmer, Woman's Head on a TowerPictured, Tête de Femme sur une Tour / Woman's Head on a Tower (circa 1940) is one of a suite of intriguing and disturbing images inspired by Les Milles' past as a brick factory by the surrealist Hans Bellmer, best known for his subversive life-sized dolls.

His drawings are no longer in Les Milles, like many of the artworks created there. Some were bartered with guards for food and favours, while others were taken away by those artists who succeeded in emigrating.

Many others remain on the site, however, and the ongoing renovations at the Camp des Milles are still uncovering new drawings and graffiti. We describe some of the more remarkable ones below.

As the war intensified, living conditions at Les Milles deteriorated even further (at one point there were just four latrines for as many as 3,000 people) and by the late summer of 1942 it had become an internment camp solely for Jews.

In August and September of that year these men, women and children were packed into railway wagons for deportation to Auschwitz: 2,000 of them, quite possibly more (the records are incomplete), including 100 children, some barely a year old. Pictured: a replica train wagon outside the Camp des Milles (note the stencils on the side of the wagon: "Men: 40. Horses: 8").

The Camp des Milles and train wagon for Jewish deporteesAt this time the Camp des Milles was in the Free Zone controlled by Marshall Pétain's collaborationist Vichy régime and administered by the French (after the Nazis occupied Free France in November 1942, the camp was converted into a munitions depot).

It was not the Germans but the high-ranking French minister Pierre Laval who insisted the children should be sent to their deaths.

So the Camp des Milles is a profoundly shameful episode for France which for years had preferred to picture itself as a nation of plucky wartime resistance fighters.

It has been a long struggle to turn it into a memorial centre. Alain Chouraqui, the President of the Fondation du Camp des Milles, explains that some opponents were anxious the project would stir up unwanted memories.

But the rise of the far-right Front National in the south of France lent the campaign momentum and the Memorial Site of the Camp des Milles (Le Site-Mémorial du Camp des Milles) was inaugurated on 10 September 2012, exactly 70 years to the day after the last train convoy departed for Auschwitz.

THE TOUR OF THE CAMP DES MILLES

Once a 19th century factory producing the distinctive terracotta pantiles that cover the roof of every provençal house, the camp sits in the village of Les Milles in typical Southern Provence countryside dotted with olive and cypress trees and dominated by Paul Cézanne's obsession, the Mont Sainte Victoire.

A substantial, solid building of 15,000 square metres / 160,000 square feet, set in grounds of some seven hectares / 17 acres, the Camp des Milles reverted to a tile factory after the war and, being itself made of brick, is still relatively well preserved.

It's the only large French internment camp that is still intact today (at the peak of the war there was a total of 240) and one of very few remaining in Europe. Even so extensive restoration has been required before Les Milles could be safely visited by the public.

When we went along for a preview in May 2012 - four months before Camp des Milles reopened its doors - it was still very much a building site, and we were given hard hats, fluorescent jackets and steel-tipped boots to put on before being led through the rubble. That won't be necessary now, but a good deal of restoration is still left to do.

Entrance to the Catacombs at the Les Milles internment campThe most immediately arresting aspect of the camp is the surviving evidence of the exceptional lives lived there, as well as the dauntless wit and creative energy that the internees somehow managed to muster.

The first thing you see is the former brick oven, a narrow, 100 metre / 109 yard long tunnel which was converted by inmates into a cabaret, named Die Katakombe (The Catacombs), after a political nightclub in pre-war Berlin.

You can still just about make out the painted sign marking the entrance and the two pairs of Greek-style tragi-comic masks flanking it, though the wall paintings inside were destroyed when the tunnel became a brick oven again after the end of the war.

The tour continues to the workshop where the bricks were once moulded, a large, high room with a glass skylight used by the camp internees as a venue for theatrical revues, literary salons or clandestine celebrations of the Shabbat.

Dormitory, Camp des MillesThe inmates spent much of their days in the half-light of the dormitories, pictured, on the upper floors where the windows were boarded up or painted dark blue as a precaution against air raids.

A little erotic sketch in a corner of the men's dormitory (at the beginning of the war the camp was single sex) testifies to unrequited longings. The renovations have been constantly uncovering new drawings and graffiti and there is certainly much left to discover.

 

But the most extraordinary and poignant part of the camp in terms of the artists' presence is the separate building which was once the guards' dining room and today is known as the Room of Murals. It's covered on all four walls with darkly humorous frescos, all featuring fantastically abundant food and drink.

These priceless memories - which were almost effaced in 1983 when the then-owners of the factory were planning renovations - are distinctively Germanic or Eastern European in flavour, full of inventive, quirky details and marked by the strong presence of surrealist artists in Les Milles.

Frieze, Camp des Milles, Aix en ProvenceOne bears the taunting legend "Si vos assiettes ne sont pas tres garnies, puissant nos dessins vous calmer l'appetit" ("If your plates are not very full, may our drawings calm your appetite"). It seems that the guards as well as the prisoners were kept on short rations.

On another wall, a frieze (detail pictured) shows a little procession of blue, comic-strip figures marching perkily along bearing giant artichokes and cheeses and overflowing wine barrels.

Opposite that, a third fresco seems to show hopeful emigrants lining up for their exit visas and features fishy motifs which may be allusions to the four dolphins of Aix en Provence and/or the sardine which, according to legend, once blocked the port of Marseille.

But the room is dominated by The Banquet of Nations, attributed to Karl Bodek, who later died in Auschwitz. Its composition ironically echoes The Last Supper, while the array of diners reflects the camp's international population.

Le Banquet des Nations, Karl BodekGuests from every corner of the earth tuck into their outrageously stereotypical national food (detail pictured).

The Italian forks up spaghetti, while the Eskimo feasts on fish, blubber and, amusingly, a bar of Marseille soap. The Indian eats fire and a figure looking like a bit like Britain's King Henry VIII sits in the middle.

Above them a dinner-jacketed figure dines in solitary splendour: is he a capitalist collaborator, a chief of police, a camp commander, or an ostracised Jew?  Like the other paintings in the room, its meaning is ambiguous.

The visit concludes on a sobering note, as you retrace the path taken by deportees to a railway wagon parked on a siding a few hundred metres from the main building.

Some people preferred to commit suicide by throwing themselves from the windows of their upper floor dormitories rather than to allow themselves to be herded towards an unknown but certainly terrible fate.

The memorial documentation was not yet in place when we went to Les Milles. But it should now include displays on the historical context of the camp.

More generally, visitors are invited to explore the psychological processes and moral choices that still lead people today to embrace fascism - or to reject it: it's intended that this should be an inspiring, educational and thought-provoking experience rather than a depressing one.

One area pays tribute to the Righteous Among Nations, non-Jews who helped some of the internees at Les Milles to escape, while another commemorates the 11,000 Jewish children deported from the whole of France to Auschwitz between 1942 and 1944.

A full visit of the Memorial can take anything from three hours to a full day, depending on how long you wish to linger on the exhibits.

There are also various temporary shows at the Camp des Milles.


Where: The Memorial Site of the Camp des Milles, The Ancienne Tuilerie des Milles, 40 chemin de la Badesse, 13547 Aix en Provence. Tel: (+33) 4 42 39 17 11. Website for The Memorial Site of the Camp des Milles

How to get there:

By public transport, take bus 4 from La Rotonde (stop: Gare des Milles). If you're arriving by train, the camp is a 10.5 km / 6.5 mile taxi ride from Aix en Provence TVG station.

By car: the camp is 6 km / 3.5 miles south-west of Aix en Provence, and 29 km / 18 miles north of Marseille. More details of how to reach the Camp des Milles

 

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