Returning from an airport run yesterday, I decided to stop off at the village of Septfonds. I wanted to visit the Spanish Cemetery, one of my 10 things to do in SW France this year. There’s a poignant history connected with it. Before that, though, there were some dolmens to look at.
Septfonds: Straw Hats and Dolmens
Septfonds (named for its seven springs) is the last village on the plain before the Massif Central starts. It was formerly the capital of the straw hat industry but nearby Caussade, which had the advantage of the railway, eventually overtook it. Today, a busy main road slices through the eastern side of the village. Turn off it and you are quickly in tranquil countryside. Just before Septfonds a sign points down a minor road to ‘Dolmens’. Apparently, there are 15 of them in all, testifying to considerable prehistoric activity.
French road signs have a habit of petering out just when you need them most. Sure enough I came to a T-junction. No sign. So I turned right (or wrong, as it turned out). After a while I came upon a sign saying ‘Dolmens’ pointing in the direction from which I had just come. I turned back and eventually came upon another sign pointing up a dirt track named ‘Le Chemin des Dolmens’.
I set off on foot into the undergrowth but earth-moving machinery had clearly been there recently. After scrambling over a muddy bank and realising that I was not shod for this, I turned back – to be confronted with a dolmen that I had completely missed (above). The other 14 will have to wait for another time.
I am also indebted to a reader, Stuart, who pointed me towards the Chemins de Mémoire website, which contains additional information about the camp, navigable in English.
Onwards to the Spanish Cemetery. But here was not all plain sailing, either. I parked in the village and set off on foot down the lane signposted to it. Shortly, another sign told me it was 2.2 km further on. Back to the car. After driving for at least twice that distance I was convinced that I had missed it when, all at once, I came upon it in the middle of nowhere.
A man was loading garden refuse into his car. “You can go in,” he said, when I appeared to hesitate. Then he told me that the next day (today – 8th May, anniversary of Victory in Europe), there would be a ceremony there to inaugurate the cemetery – puzzling, since I thought it already had been. Ceremonies would also be held at the site of the former internment camp and at various other places around the village.
“I’ve set up a website about it all,” the man said. I promised to look at it. When I got home, I did (Life on La Lune: that website is no longer safely navigable, so I have removed the link). The history is more complex than I can relate here. Also, the camp’s records were destroyed after World War II, although other sources exist. Here’s a potted version.
Establishment of the Internment Camp
After the fall of Barcelona in January 1939 during the Spanish Civil War, more than half a million Republican refugees fled Spain. Many of them swarmed over the Pyrénées into France. The authorities set up six camps to accommodate them, one of which was at Septfonds, le Camp de Judes. They requisitioned a 50-hectare site, formerly sheep pasture, which they surrounded with barbed-wire fences and watchtowers. In mid-March 1939, around 16,000 Spanish refugees crammed into 45 wooden huts roofed with corrugated iron. Around 50 Spanish people were already living in Septfonds, part of the first wave of refugees who arrived in 1936.
The living conditions in the camp were cramped, unsanitary and primitive. Eighty-one internees died in 1939-40, many of them young men. Most died of typhoid, bronchial pneumonia or tuberculosis, which they might have already had but which was aggravated by the conditions. The Spanish Cemetery was established outside the village but it’s not clear if those 81 were the only ones who died during that period. It seems unlikely.
Despite the grim conditions, the refugees managed to establish a thriving social, cultural and artistic community. The children went to the local school and the adults worked on the land or in local factories.
World War II
As war became inevitable, the camp’s purpose changed and it housed foreigners enlisting in the French army. After the fall of France in May 1940 and the establishment of the Vichy Government, the camp became a demobilisation centre for foreign volunteers. It went through various incarnations, including an internment centre for foreigners and a base for foreign worker groups. Allied officers and foreign Communist Party members were also interned there.
To comply with the Final Solution, Vichy housed local Jews at the camp, arrested during raids across the département in August 1942, before transferring them to the internment camp at Drancy and on to concentration camps. In all, 295 Jews were transferred from Septfonds.
After the occupation of the Zone Libre in late 1942, the camp housed foreign forced labour and “undesirables”. The Resistance liberated it in August 1944 and then detained local alleged collaborators there. The camp closed in May 1945 and was abandoned to nature. During the 1970s, the authorities turned it into a memorial. They also restored an oratory built by Polish prisoners and erected a monument to the deported Jews. A former Spanish refugee, Cesareo Bustos, who had been deported to Mauthausen, was behind the restoration of the Spanish Cemetery.
Today, the Spanish Cemetery is a peaceful, immaculately-kept place set on a slight rise with a view of the rolling, green countryside. The man I talked to went off for his lunch and left me to contemplate the monuments to the sound of nightingales. I reflected that he looked Spanish and even his accent was not quite French. A quick glance in the telephone directory pages for Septfonds reveals a number of Spanish surnames.
The memory of that sombre period in France’s history and the things that happened is still raw in this area. The fact that the camp and the cemetery fell into oblivion for 30 years says a great deal.
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Really interesting post – and has added to my Spanish Civil War knowledge. Thanks.
Thanks, Rob. I’m sure you know a lot more about the Spanish Civil War than I do but I suspect this is an aspect that has been less studied by historians.
A really interesting post – thank you. To me Septfonds has only ever been a station on the line down from Montauban in my commuting to Toulouse from Moissac days. What tragic days those were and, in my case anyway, within my lifetime – just. It’s hard to believe.
It is a sad story. It would be interesting to know exactly how many unfortunate people were interned there altogether but I don’t suppose we ever will, since the camp’s records were burnt in 1945. At least, even if we don’t know how many were involved, they are now recognised with memorials and ceremonies, somewhat belatedly.
Another fascinating post, Vanessa! And another item to put on my ‘to do’ list. Thanks for sharing the story of this place.
Thanks, Evelyn. I was shamefully ignorant about it until very recently. It’s not an edifying story, although as I understand it many of the local people were kind to the Spaniards and raised money for them, etc. The later uses of the camp during the war itself are chilling.
Really interesting research, Vanessa, and a further insight into how Spanish refugees were shamefully treated. But I’m looking forward to you returning and “doing” the dolmens even more… I’m a dolmen nut, lots here in the Finistère, and I regularly go off at a tangent to try and find one. Very often miles off the beaten track, over grown and hard to find. Some spectacular ones, and “allées couvertes” (burial chambers) such as Mougau Bihan for instance. I tried to leave a link but the comment box won’t let me. Google it, it’s worth it!
Yes, it’s a pity about the dolmens but I will go back when I am more suitably shod for it. It was really terribly muddy! We have a lot of dolmens in this area, too, especially up on the causse. I know you have some spectacular prehistoric monuments in Brittany. I’ll go and have a look at Mougau Bihan on the web.