When at the local tourist office, upon first learning about the camp at Les Milles, barely outside my temporary hometown of Aix-en-Provence, I can’t say I wanted to go there. But I knew I would. Having been to Holocaust memorials and museums—having been to Auschwitz—I knew what I was in for. I also knew that since it was in my neighborhood, a visit would be compulsory. For those of us alive and well seventy-some years after the eruptions of World War II, the least we can do is to pay attention, to pay our respects.
So, along with my husband and French and American friends, I went. We arrived by bus, and walking along a dusty road of an old industrial area of Les Milles, found ourselves staring through a fence at a large, grim brick edifice. It had been a tile and brick factory from the 19th century to World War I, when it was abandoned. Then, in 1939, it found new life—and a new purpose—as a concentration camp, which operated for three years.
Sometimes called “the antechamber of Auschwitz,” it was intended first as a transit camp, until 1942, when it became a deportation center. After the war, like most such camps in France, it was destined for oblivion. But some thirty years ago, Alain Chouraqui discovered its existence, and led the long campaign to preserve it—to transform Les Milles from the site of unspeakable crimes to one of guidance toward a more humane future.
“We decided to fight to preserve this camp,” he said, “since we understood that this camp was in fact the last one preserved in France… We were interested in showing that the bad people were not only the Germans or Nazis, but they were French.
“The question of identity, racism, anti-Semitism ,” he also said, “are still very active and dangerous, and we want to show people how far it can lead societies.”
His point was abundantly clear when, as we approached the grounds, we entered a security clearing room one-by-one; offending objects such as pocket knives were removed from us, and a heavily armed soldier scrutinized from outside. Asked if this procedure had been in place long, he answered no, only since the Charlie Hebdo attacks in Paris in January, 2015.
There is no sugar coating the dismal immensity of a 19th century tile factory, the cold, the dank, the dust of it. When such a place becomes a holding pen for human beings without adequate clothing, bedding, sanitary facilities, or food, its wretchedness cries out over decades.
But still, what we discovered at Les Milles astonished us: That despite the deprivations and fear, for the extraordinary collection of artists, musicians, and intellectuals thrown together there—more than 10,000 internees from many countries over three years—creation was resistance.
Initially the detainees were Germans living in France, some Nazis, but in one of the cruel ironies of the war, many were anti-fascists who had fled the Nazi regime. Then the numbers began to swell with dissident artists and intellectuals: painters including Max Ernst, Hans Belmer, Ferdinand Springer;
writers such as historian Golo Mann (son of Thomas Mann) and Lion Feuchtwanger, who would live to write a memoir about the camp, “The Devil in France”; and Nobel-Prize winning scientists Otto Meyerhof,
who won the prize for medicine in 1922, and Tadeus Reichstein, who would win it in 1950 for his invention of cortisone. There were architects, sculptors, orchestra conductors, journalists, comedians, and political dissidents.
I felt as if we met them in the silent dust they left behind. In the former kiln, stacked with bricks to create a stage and seats, prisoners created a theater named “The Catacombs,” after a cabaret in pre-war Berlin that had been shut down by the Nazis for its political satire and “depravity.” The sounds of Goethe’s “Faust”, of orchestra music, still echo there, just as the stories of lost loves and lives and hopes still exist in the graffiti of hearts, faces, messages, a Star of David left behind on the walls. In all, it is thought more than 300 original works were created at Les Milles, most of them eventually smuggled out.
The most visible of what remain are the murals of the guards’ dining hall, which burst with humor, color and satire. It was hard for me to imagine the kind of courage it took to create comedy in the face of despair, and my first instinct was to withhold my laughter. But I couldn’t, not in front of the cartoon-like figures in blue carrying trays; not when seeing the ironic message beneath plates piled high with delicious food: “If your plates aren’t very full, let our drawings calm your appetite.”
And certainly not in front of the large mural of a comedic “Last Supper” featuring a cowboy, an Eskimo, a Henry VIII-like king, and others all gorging themselves on the food of their countries, while a disdainful figure—supposedly the Vichy camp commander—looks down at them from above. I decided that the artist meant for me to join him in laughter, which, like food, is always better shared. He was most likely Karl Bodek, who was deported to Auschwitz.
Visiting Les Milles invites such connections—with the artists and what they left for us, with the horrors of what took place here, but also with its heroes. There was the security guard Auguste Boyer who smuggled out Jewish children and sheltered them in his home. He was fired for his defiance. There was the French camp commander who ordered a freight car to take endangered dissidents close to Spain. There was the American journalist Vivian Fry who helped smuggle over 2,000 refugees—some from Les Milles—to safety in America. And there was the American Vice-Consul Hiram Bingham who worked with Fry by issuing false visas. He was also fired for defiance.
Defiance. Creativity. Resistance. This is where the visit ends, with a “Reflective” exhibit tracing not only the genocide of the Jews, but of other holocausts. Armenians, 1915-1916; Gypsies, 1939-1945; Rwandans, 1994.
It invites—challenges—each person to resist in large ways and small. To be intolerant of hate speech, to act against group pressure and stereotypes, to help stamp out racism wherever it’s found.
One picture is blown up to make its own powerful statement as a mural. It shows Germans at the 1936 Olympics in Berlin all standing to give the Nazi salute. But one man, who remains quietly sitting, arms crossed over his chest, resists.
As my companions and I left across the dusty yard to the exit, we were all pretty silent. I know what was on my mind, and later my husband said he was lost in the same thought. One of the many ways democracy can give way to authoritarian regimes, according to a display in the Reflective section, is when laws and governing principles protecting freedom and human rights are eviscerated and turned on their heads under a false veneer of legitimacy.
The display did not mention the American Patriot Act, nor the Supreme Court’s Citizen United decision, allowing unlimited and anonymous spending in political campaigns. Nor did it pose the question, “If you had been here at Les Milles, what would you have done?”
What it did ask, though, was far more difficult. “Who are you, really? And what do you intend to do now?”