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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