Deported to Gurs
ON THE MORNING OF OCTOBER 22, 1940, teams of police pounded on the doors of every Jewish home in Baden and Pfalz/Saar, the southwestern German states bordering France. In Mannheim, Karlsruhe, Heidelburg, Friburg-en-Brisgau and Constance, and in every city and village in the area, they came, armed with lists of names that had been secretly compiled in July of 1940, shortly after France's surrender. They had precise instructions on how to carry out the arrests, the expulsion and the deportation: who to arrest, how much time victims had to pack up, what they could bring with them, how to treat the remaining property, even how to obtain receipts for the victims' pets taken in by neighbors.
The deportation order was known as the Wagner-Burckel Aktion for the two Nazi administrators who engineered it. The day after the Jews were expelled from their homes, Wagner proudly claimed that his area was the first in Germany to be Judenrein, free of Jews, as Hitler had desired. (For more information and sources see below.)
DEPORTATION of German Jews to Gurs, 22 October, 1940. Ludwigshafen am Rhein "All persons of the Jewish race, as long as they are fit to be transported," with the exception of those married to non-Jews, were to be deported, the order read.
"WE HAVE SUFFERED TERRIBLY. To have been thrown out of our home was so dreadful that we shall never get over it as long as we live."
THE VICTIMS were allowed on average a half-hour to an hour to pack, and each household was permitted to take 50 kilograms of luggage and 100 Reichsmark in cash. All other possessions that had to be left behind were seized and inventoried, the plunder to be sold at auction for the benefit of the German government.
THE ELDERLY were not exempted from the deportation order. Nearly 10 percent of those expelled were over 75. Old age homes were evacuated, and the order stipulated that those who couldn't walk should be moved on stretchers. The oldest victim was a 98-year-old man from Mannheim.
photo ©Stadtarchiv Mannheim - Institut für Stadtgeschichte. Ludwigshafen a. R., 1940.
photo © Stadtarchiv Mannheim - Institut für Stadtgeschichte.
All deportation photos on this page were taken in Ludwigshafen am Rhein, a town near Mannheim (No photos exist of the deportation in Mannheim). Photos courtesy of and copyright ©Stadtarchiv Mannheim - Institut für Stadtgeschichte.
photo ©Stadtarchiv Mannheim - Institut für Stadtgeschichte.
THE ROUNDUP of about 7,500 Jews took place "without friction or incident" and was "scarcely noticed by the population," the Nazis reported. This did not take into account the number of people who committed suicide rather than face deportation -- in Mannheim alone, there were eight such suicides.
The arrested Jews were taken to collection points at railroad stations, then packed into seven special trains for the trip, two nights and two days, to an internment camp in the south of France. (Most of those expelled were sent to Gurs; some were sent to French internment camps Rivesaltes and Les Milles.)
". . .AND THEN THE TRIP in the dark, cold railroad car. . . shaken, thirsty and desperate, longing for what we had left behind and from which we never meant to separate."
CAMP DE GURS, at the foot of the Pyrenees, had been hastily built on swampy ground in 1939 as an internment camp for refugees from the Spanish civil war. In early 1940, it also held about 4,000 German Jewish refugees as "enemy aliens." At the time of the deportation, in October of 1940, Gurs was under the authority of the collaborationist Vichy government of France.
The victims arrived during an icy autumn downpour. Officials at Gurs were completely unprepared for their arrival.
"THE DOUBLE ROWS OF BARBED WIRE encircled a sea of mud, itself surrounded by infinite rows of barracks. . .not a tree, scarcely a few tufts of grass. If Auschwitz was hell, Gurs was surely purgatory."
---an internee, quoted in The Holocaust, the French and the Jews
". . .SOAKED BY THE RAIN, shivering with cold, exhausted by the long voyage, the flock was pushed in indescribable disoder into empty barracks, without benches, without straw, without mattresses. Collapsed against their bundles, many old people spent the night."
quoted in The Holocaust, the French and the Jews
CONDITIONS AT GURS were terrible, as the New York Times article, "Misery and Death in French Camps" reported several months after the deportation.
Internees were crammed into dark filthy barracks with sealed windows, rats, lice and fleas. Food, water and clothing were never adequate. In rainstorms, the roofs leaked and the swampy land turned to mud so thick the internees couldn't walk to the latrines for fear of drowning in the slimy muck.
DURING THE WINTER of 1940/1941, the coldest one of the war, hundreds died at Gurs of malnutrition and exposure, or of epidemics of typhoid fever and dysentery, "conditions of neglect and deprivation," Susan Zuccotti writes in The Holocaust, The French and the Jews, "that revealed not mere bureaucratic indifference but active and deliberate ill will."
Within a year of the deportation, more than 1,000 of the German deportees had died. They are buried at the cemetery in Gurs. They, and the other foreign Jews who died in French internment camps in the unoccupied zone, Zuccotti writes, "were the first casualties of the Holocaust in France, and they died because of French, not German, persecution."
"Gauleiters Robert Wagner and Joseph Buerckel, the German administrative heads of the States of Baden and the Pfalz/Saar, sought to be the first to make their territories Judenrein (free of Jews). They engineered a massive westward expulsion of over 6,500 Jews to Camp de Gurs, located in unoccupied Vichy France. The event became known as the Wagner-Buerckel Aktion and was offered by the Gauleiters as their gift to the Fuehrer in October 1940. The relocation of Jews to the Gurs internment camp became an intermediate step when the infamous "Final Solution" was pronounced at the Wannsee Conference in January 1942."
---Werner L. Frank. See Frank's book, "The Curse of Gurs: Way Station to Auschwitz"
For social and religious life in Gurs, see: "The Gurs Haggadah: Passover in Perdition." Edited by Bella Gutterman and Naomi Morgenstern.
For a brief history of the Gurs camp, see the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum's entry on Gurs.