On a luminous day in February, I visited Septfonds, an ancient bastide about 20 km away. This apparently unassuming place possesses an abundance of history. I wrote then about the hat-making industry, which was Septfonds’ major employer in times past. The commune is also the site of an internment camp that housed Spanish refugees in 1939.
I didn’t post about this when I visited, since Russia had just invaded Ukraine, and the horrors of war and the plight of refugees were uppermost in everyone’s minds. Perhaps there’s never a good time to write about these things, but it is a way of preserving the memory of those concerned.
Establishment of the Camp de Judes
Ten years ago, I visited the Spanish Cemetery on the outskirts of Septfonds, where 81 of the Spanish refugees lie. But I didn’t have time to visit the site of the camp, or the other monuments.
This is what I wrote then about the Camp de Judes, updated in the light of February’s visit, including photos. Incidentally, the name Judes is simply that of the place where it was established. It has no relation to the Jews who were regrettably held there during World War II.
After the fall of Barcelona in January 1939, half a million Republican refugees fled over the Pyrénées into France. Faced with this influx of “foreign undesirables”, the Daladier government set up camps to accommodate them. They soon became overcrowded, so the authorities requisitioned a 50-hectare sheep pasture outside Septfonds, surrounded with barbed-wire fences.
In March 1939, trainloads of refugees arrived. Instead of stopping at the nearby town of Caussade, the trains continued to the tiny halt of Borredon. From there, the refugees were marched discreetly 7 km along the back roads and tracks.
As I drove through the quiet country lanes to Borredon, I wondered how it must have felt to arrive there, unsure of what awaited you, uncertain of the future, and no doubt dispirited and exhausted.
Life in the camp
Around 16,000 refugees crammed into 45 wooden huts roofed with corrugated iron. Some 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. There was a lack of running water, no electricity and often a shortage of food. Eighty-one internees died in 1939-40, many of them young men. Most of those died of typhoid, bronchial pneumonia or tuberculosis, aggravated by the conditions. They were buried in the Spanish Cemetery.
Despite the grim conditions, the refugees managed to establish a thriving social, cultural and artistic community. Spanish artists painted the Stations of the Cross in the church. The children went to the local school, and the adults worked on the land or in local factories.
Local people were often sympathetic to the refugees and did what they could to support them. The commune set up a reception centre for refugee families in a former hat-making factory in Septfonds and a hospital to supplement the camp’s own infirmary.
Onset of World War II
As war became inevitable, the camp housed foreigners enlisting in the French army, but two detachments of Spanish refugees remained to maintain the camp. After the Armistice and the establishment of the Vichy Government, it became a demobilisation centre for foreign volunteers in the French army. It then went through various incarnations, including an internment centre for allied officers and foreign Communist Party members.
In 1941, Polish officers built this oratory at a quiet crossroads near the camp. They requested that it be decorated with wild flowers every year on 3rd May, Poland’s national day.
Following the roundup of Jews across the département and the neighbouring Lot in August 1942, they were detained in the camp before transferring to Drancy near Paris. From there, they were transported to concentration camps, where many were killed or died of starvation and disease. I have not been able to discover if any Jews interned in the Camp de Judes survived the Holocaust, but the likelihood is slim. In all, 295 Jews passed through Septfonds in 1942. This monument in the Square Henri Grau commemorates them. At two years old, Henri was the youngest Jewish child deported from Tarn-et-Garonne.
After the occupation of the Zone Libre in November 1942, the camp housed foreign forced labour and groups considered undesirable. The Resistance liberated it in August 1944 and then detained local alleged collaborators there.
The camp closed for good in May 1945. Given the mood that reigned in France for many years after World War II, it is perhaps no surprise that this place of confinement, privation and fear was abandoned to nature until the memorials were established during the 1970s.
The present memorial in the hamlet of Lalande dates from the 1990s and is a reconstruction of the barbed wire fences and one of the barracks. Nothing else remains, except a view through the barbed wire over peaceful green farmland where the barracks once stood.
You can read more detail than I can include about the history of the camp (in English) here. If you visit Septfonds, la Mounière, the local museum, has put together remembrance walks that connect all the memorials associated with the camp.
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Thank you for this beautiful piece, so thoughtful and well researched. Since unlike the purpose of the refugee detainment, the deportation to concentration camps was likely to lead to death (by starvation, experimentation, or gas chamber) you might consider adding the reality – “..from there to concentration camps where many perished or were killed.”
Following the roundup of Jews across the département in August 1942, they were detained in the camp before transferring to Drancy and from there to concentration camps. In all, 295 Jews passed through Septfonds in 1942. This monument in the Square Henri Grau commemorates them. At two years old, Henri was the youngest Jewish child deported from Tarn-et-Garonne.
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Thank you for your comment and for your kind words about the post. In response to your suggestion, I have added a few words. I have been unable to find out if any of the Jews from the Septfonds camp survived the concentration camps, since it would have been good to know, but I have so far come across no information about that. I have added a sentence to that effect, too.
Great post, Vanessa. I love the way you draw out the ‘hidden’ histories of places. The human spirit is a wonderful thing. I was reminded of my mum-in-law’s experience in an internment camp and how the women managed to retain a sense of normality by holding cultural events.
On a recent trip to Ypres in Belgium I thought that the town’s identity and its role in WW1 was walking a fine line between respect and monetization. A beautiful place to visit nonetheless and less touristy than somewhere like Bruges. Thanks for triggering these thoughts!
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There are so many hidden histories to find around here, and I enjoy rooting them out. As you say, the human spirit is incredibly resilient. I remember the story of your mother-in-law. One admires their courage.
You’re right about the fine line between remembrance and commercialisation. So many places where historical events took place have become theme parks complete with souvenir shops. Nonetheless, it’s important that these stories are remembered. It’s all too easy for them to fall into obscurity.
Bonjour Vanessa,another very sensitively written piece regarding an extremely difficult period in the French nations history.I agree entirely with your sentiments that however difficult,we should recall these stories to respect the memory of those poor people that suffered.I was lucky enough to visit Normandy recently ( I will get further south very soon!),the lovely people who owned the property we were staying recommended a local Abbey to visit.It was ok,but on the way I discovered a forest path leading to a large cross,where retreating German troops ambushed several Maquisards and subsequently executed those they captured.When I returned and they enquired what sort of day I had,to my astonishment,they denied all knowledge of its existence and another honouring a brave French woman who hid downed Allied airman.I didn’t press them,but firmly believe they just didn’t want to discuss this uncomfortable subject.Keep up the good work Vanessa,please keep up your investigations as I find the posts extremely well written and always interesting.
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Hello Stuart, I have just fished your comment out of the spam bin. I don’t know why WordPress put it there, but this has happened to several bona fide comments recently. I look there regularly, fortunately.
I was interested to read about your recent visit to Normandy and your WWII discoveries. I have also come across a reluctance to discuss the subject on several occasions, and, as you’ll recall, there was a particularly vociferous objection to my writing about them a few years ago.
This was the first time I had visited the Septfonds camp, and it’s not that easy to find. The local remembrance museum was closed when I went, so I need to go back.
All good wishes, Vanessa
Thank you Vanessa,not sure why I have been relegated to the spam bin but probably well deserved!.I am always impressed by your well balanced sensitively written articles which I cannot understand how anyone could object to.I may have mentioned these before so apologies if that is the case but I know some notable resistance activity took place at Realville,Dunes and Negrepelisse which might be worth further investigation.Kind regards Stuart
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Not deserved at all! Sometimes the WordPress spam detector is over-zealous. I think you have mentioned Realville and Nègrepelisse in relation to resistance activity, but not Dunes, which is further away. I know that Das Reich committed atrocities there in June 1944. I’ve been looking at WWII stories closer to home and just over the Aveyron border. I hope you make it down South soon.
Very moving. How awful to leave your home, not knowing what awaited you and being put in a camp. Could happen to any of us under different circumstances.
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I can’t begin to imagine how it must be to lose everything and live with the terrible uncertainty (or perhaps the terrible certainty). Things can change in the blink of an eye.
What a beautiful (a word I don’t use lightly) and evocative posting. For twelve years (my partner died about six weeks ago), I was married into a half-Jewish (but nominally Roman Catholic), upper class family from the Tourraine and, historically, Languedoc-Roussilon. The grandfather (who, ironically, was the only family member who hadn’t a drop of Jewish blood in him) was the only one to go to the concentration camps (Auschwitz, for two years). I learned, quite early on,to simply NOT discuss anything (or even ask “awkward” questions) to do with Jews/WW2/the Dreyfuss trial/etc. I grew up in Mississippi in the 1960’s…….learning, equally early on, NOT to bring up, historically or currently (while the entire state was burining down around us) what was referred to as “The Race Problem”. So, I’m quite familiar with mass, societal denial…..whether one’s mentioning the Holocaust or the quite-local lynching/murders of hundreds of African-Americans.
I eventually visited my partner’s great Aunt, Yvonne…..in her big, 18th century house in Argeles/Elnes. Her aged parents had opened their property for the first wave of desperate refugees from Barcelona. At age 83,she readily told tales of that time which were horrifying, but also beautiful in an unexpected way.
What I want to express is my sincere appreciation for your writing and posting this. It is all-too easy to ignore and forget, so I admire your forthrightness, despite your initial misgivings. I read your blog because you are so obviously a real person, telling your real experiences (I have no use for someone’s trying to sell me fancy “Je Loves Alll Things FRENCH!!!” stuff off their blog. Your blog is a bracing alternative.
With thanks and admiration,
Hillsborough, North Carolina
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It’s always good to hear from you, David, but I’m so sorry to know the sad news about your partner. I can only imagine how I would feel in the same situation.
Thank you for your kind words. I try to tell things as they are, or at least how I experience them. Not everyone cares for me doing that, especially when it comes to events in WWII, but I do strongly believe that we must keep these memories alive, however difficult that might be. I do, of course, appreciate that people who lived through such events may have a different perspective, and this has certainly been the case in France, so I can see that your partner’s family wouldn’t want to discuss these things. It’s heartening, though, to hear that Great Aunt Yvonne’s parents took in Spanish refugees.
Thank you again for reading my scribblings. I greatly appreciate it.