THE GREY FOLDER PROJECT
RIVESALTES, LIKE GURS, WAS A LARGE CAMP in Southern France, near the Spanish border. Built as a military camp to house soldiers, in late 1938 it housed fugitives of the Spanish Civil War. In June 1940, Vichy authorities converted Rivesaltes into an internment camp. At the height of its operation, in the spring of 1941, (when Owszija Kagan was interned there) Rivesaltes had a population of about 8,000, including at least 3,000 children.
PRISONERS LINE UP AT A FOOD DISTRIBUTION POINT. Spring, 1942. Food was inadequate and cold at Rivesaltes. Photo used with permission from United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, courtesy of Simone Weil Lipman.
CONDITIONS WERE TERRIBLE. Rivesaltes was "almost a reprisal camp" according to the Vichy Prefect André Jean-Faure, who was charged with inspecting the camps. Although Jean-Faure supported the Vichy regime, and expected only the most basic facilities of these camps, even he was shocked by conditions in Gurs, Le Vernet, Les Milles, Rivesaltes, and other French internment camps.
The vast encampment of wooden barracks, located on a stony plain, was battered by "glacial winds in winter, torrid heat in the summer," Jean-Faure reported. Dusty winds roared through the camp about one hundred days a year, with gusts up to 75 miles an hour. A lack of water in the camp failed to provide "basic conditions of cleanliness." Even the sick had to walk 250 yards to the outdoor toilet, and in the winter the infirmary had no heat. Conditions only worsened in the winter of 1941-2, when the camp received only a fraction of the necessary fuel for heating and prisoners had to try to make clothing out of blankets. Hundreds of internees died of malnutrition, disease or exposure to cold.*
As with Gurs, the Vichy authorities, in collaboration with Nazi Germany, used Rivesaltes as a transit camp for the deportation of Jews from France to killing centers in German-occupied Poland. Nine convoys left Rivesaltes to Auschwitz via Drancy, transporting 2,313 Jews to where they were most likely murdered.
Owszija Kagan was not on one of the convoys from Rivesaltes, only because in July of 1941, he had been transferred to a foreign workers' camp (groupements de travailluers étrangers, GTE). From there, in August of 1942, he too was deported to Auschwitz.
* Information and quotes by Jean-Faure from Vichy France and the Jews by Michael R. Marrus and Robert O. Paxton, Basic Books, Inc., 1981, pp. 173-174. "It was commonplace that in most respects the French camps were as bad as the Nazis, at least up to the beginnings of extermination in 1942," Marrus and Paxton write (p. 175.)
"Rivesaltes ceased functioning as an internment camp in November 1942, following the deportation of most of the Jewish prisoners to Auschwitz (via Drancy), and the transfer of the Gypsies to other camps. After the liberation of France, Rivesaltes was used as a POW camp for captured Germans." (USHMM)