The French Porajmos: Roma, Romani, Yenish, Manouche, and Sinti People in the WWII Concentration Camp of Montreuil-Bellay, France



The genocidal experience of the Pořajmos is a central case in studying the failures of reparation politics of segregated populations. The brutality of the Pořajmos (a Romani word for “devouring”) — the period between 1939 and 1945 when European Roma, Romani, Yenish, Manouche, and Sinti people were persecuted and killed across Europe — is often overlooked in France as a result of ongoing prejudice by the government and broader French society. Broaching this subject requires great sensitivity, especially when considering the comparative acknowledgement
of victimization across Europe during the period of Nazi Germany and the subsequent efforts and choices to emphasize certain communities for reparation and compensation after the War, i.e., Po
řajmos, Shoah or Pink triangle prisoners. Yet, when thinking about this community in contemporary France, we are faced with the impossibility of an authentic attempt for reparation by the government when the political and intercultural networks of this community are overpowered by an administration that continues to deport the very people they claim they want to heal.
We are equally faced with the following question: to whom the administration addresses an acknowledgement when considering the different treatment of the survivors of Pořajmos, populations who arrived after 1945, as well as Roma French citizens?

Henty Funambulist 1
The concentration camp of Montreuil-Bellay, while in operation (date unknown). / Courtesy of Jacques Sigot.

This article offers an analysis on the choices of patrimonialization — the means through which cultural heritage is both materially and immaterially established — of certain built heritage, with a specific focus on an concentration camp wedged between a national highway and railway track on the outskirts of Montreuil-Bellay, Mid-Western France, the largest concentration camp of the 31 camps that existed in France for “nomads.” In doing so, this article tries to understand how racialized institutions are protected in a way to perpetuate a dis-remembrance of collective memory and national identity. The case of Montreuil-Bellay highlights the incoherence of the practical application of the universal principles of the French Republic for minority communities.

Henty Funambulist 1
Photograph of the concentration camp of Montreuil-Bellay, while in operation (1944). / Archives Jean-Claude Leblé et Jacques Sigot.

On October 29, 2016, standing on the ruins of the concentration camp of Montreuil-Bellay in Mid-Western France, French President François Hollande declared to an audience of approximately 500 people, that the camp for “nomads” during World War II would become a national memorial site. Quite literally trampling on the stone foundation of the former barracks with microphones, flags and personnel, where approximately 100 Romani were killed under the Third Republic and Vichy Government, Hollande stated, “the day has come, it is necessary that the truth is said […] The Republic acknowledges the suffering of traveling people who were interned and admits that it bears a great responsibility in this tragedy” (Ouest France, October 29, 2016). Hollande thus acknowledged the French Government’s involvement in the segregation of Roma, Romani, Yenish, Manouche, and Sinti communities. The manner in which the concentration camp of Montreuil-Bellay was introduced to wider France in late 2016 raises questions concerning the valorization of ruins, places of trauma, and the public, we the witnesses, of how memory is legitimized in history by government authorities. Concerning specifically heritage and patrimonialization, the concentration camp of Montreuil-Bellay represents conflicts within the practical application of the values of contemporary French society and exemplifies the often-contradictory experience of reparation politics. After the war, the French state continued to develop deportation, displacement or accompaniment to the borders of thousands of its “nomad” population policies, perpetuating this long-lasting social exclusion and discrimination. The deportation and demolition of Roma and Romani settlements peaked in 2009–2010, when Sarkozy’s conservative government deported approximately 10,000 Roma people, and it continues today with armed riot police regularly displacing and demolishing settlements. Thus, the treatment of the few ruins that remain of the Montreuil-Bellay concentration camp for “Tziganes” in France, and its existence in the first instance raises two questions: how does the French government expect to wholly acknowledge this ignored painful memory with sensitivity when it continues to attempt to annihilate the presence of this population within its borders? And, when Hollande acknowledged the prisoners of the camp, was he talking only about a population that belongs to the past and not the Roma, Romani, Yenish, Manouche, and Sinti people that live in France today? In the hardening of the right-wing political climate of France today and in the face of a continued state of emergency, these questions are even more pertinent.

Henty Funambulist 2
Administrative documents about the “Nomad people concentration camps.” / Departmental archives of Maine-et-Loire, Angers, France.

The question of morality insofar as accountability, responsibility and exoneration must briefly be mentioned regarding Hollande’s (and Chirac’s 1995 acknowledgement of the deportation of France’s Jewish population) acknowledgement of the Vichy Government’s responsibility for Montreuil-Bellay. On June 1, 1940, the French Parliament and Government retreated to Vichy, Auvergne, central France after fleeing Paris, which was by now occupied by Germany. On June 10, 1940 the National Assembly, faced with the imminent overthrow by German forces gave World War I war “hero” Marshal Philippe Pétain absolute power, thus establishing a new Chief of State of a now collaborative France government. On June 22, 1940, the Vichy government was established when the Franco-Germany Armistice was signed, dividing France into Occupied and Sovereign zones, and on July 11-12, 1940, the Constitutional Acts were signed, granting Pétain diplomatic, judicial, administrative, legislative and executive power in the Vichy government. Pétain remained Chief from 1940 until August 20, 1944, leading negotiations with the Third Reich in the systematic arrest and deportation of Jews, Spanish communities, homosexuals, and “Tsiganes.” Official acknowledgements of painful histories are extremely problematic, as they often ignore the contemporary implications of these events. Hollande, as an official representative of the very institution that permitted and committed these atrocities— i.e., the French government — acknowledged this past trauma, indeed an important and necessary gesture. However, in this acknowledgement of the existence of the concentration camp of Montreuil-Bellay, he did not embrace contemporary administrations’ responsibility in the continued racism and segregation of this minority — a moral position to which each individual must remain accountable —, nor that the government remains, in the words of Derrida, “in all good faith, sincerely” accountable for the social and political implications of segregation.

Henty Funambulist 3
Aerial View of the Concentration Camp of Montreuil-Bellay in 1945 (left) and 1959 (right). / Institut national de l’information géographique et forestière.

As an Australian living in France, this case was of particular resonance. It highlighted the differences between an island nation with the impossibility of “borderless travellers,” — despite the Australian Governments’ use of bordering islands since 2001 (Manus Island, Nauru Island, Christmas Island) to detain refugees and Indigenous people under the auspices of the “Pacific Solution” policy — while revealing poignant resemblances of the treatment of Indigenous heritage since the founding of the Australia Felix at the beginning of the 19th century by settlers. Specifically, it highlights parallels to Aboriginal protectorates and missions, where First Nation people were forced to live in bordered territories with churches, schools and housing for their supposed “protection and assimilation,” — or their isolation and imprisonment — a practice that continued into the 20th century. The most pertinent and startling similarity was not the treatment of a group of people within its borders, but the way that the government considered the preservation of a heritage that represents a shameful moment in history — that is, the treatment of the memory itself materialized as cultural heritage.

Montreuil-Bellay is a small village of approximately 5,000 people situated 300 kilometers south west of Paris. From January to June 1940, a housing complex was constructed to house the personnel of a nearby factory storing gunpowder, installed on the outskirts of the town by the Ministry of War. With the invasion of France by the German army on May 10, 1940, the camp was occupied by German soldiers and used as a stalag — a prisoner-of-war camp — until March 1941. During this period, German soldiers surrounded the camp with barbed wire and militarized the area. The camp became a camp for “individuals without a fixed abode, nomads, having the type of Romani” (“individus sans domicile fixe, nomades et forains, ayant le type de romani”), French citizens or otherwise, on November 8, 1940. The imprisonment of Romani was the manifestation of Marshal Philippe Pétain’s, the Chief of State of Vichy France, policy that prohibited the movement of all Romani.

Henty Funambulist 4
Current remains of the Concentration Camp of Montreuil-Bellay. / Photograph by Suzannah Henty (April 2017).

Yet, it was not only the collaborative government that implemented this racist policy against “travelling people” — the last president of the Third Republic, Albert Lebrun, on April 6, 1940, finalized a decree proposed in 1938 that stated “nomads” must be gathered in designated communes under the surveillance of the police. In 1885, the French government implanted a census of Roma, counting 25,000 and announced that the police would search for “The King of Gypsies,” (“Le Roi des Gitans”) supposing the existence of a conspiring network. This law was signed and implemented in July 1912. However as French law prohibits the discrimination
of people for their ethnicity, the government sidestepped this by concerning themselves with the way Roma live as nomads — an erroneous stereotype in itself.
By 1939, Roma and Sinti were officially considered stateless (apatride) and the French government considered stateless populations in France as enemies and traitors of their firmly codified systems of being.

These laws should not be understood as reflection of the views held only by the government for economic, political or racist reasons — the treatment of Romani people by the wider French public is a result of enduring racism and xenophobia that intensify during a period of perceived threatened living conditions, i.e., during World War II. In reading departmental archives this truth is revealed: the archives from Service Historique de la Gendarmerie Nationale, box 12701, BT Limoges, procès-verbal 382 (Feb. 24, 1941), show requests from citizens to the police (gendarmerie) to round-up the Romani in the area, stating, “Nomads…[are] undesirable and their departure is wished for.” Similarly, the documents at the Archives Départementales de Maine-et-Loire: AD49, where one of the most substantial dossiers contains copies of the letters of acknowledgements in the name of the government for the donors to the camp (file 97w, 48, 1942–1944). It is impossible to know if the donations were made with good will to help the people of the camp, but knowing that the camp was guarded by volunteers of the village, the question needs to be posed. More recently, journalist Hervé Gardette questioned the continued discrimination against the Roma and Sinti population, stating that racism towards France’s towards this minority has become “decomplexed” (“decomplexé” France Culture, April 13, 2017). What Hollande failed to mention is that the camp of Montreuil-Bellay is not a symbolic account of the treatment of Roma and Sinti during the World War II, but one mark of the historic and enduring racism against minorities.

The camp itself consisted of sleeping quarters, a medical center, a school, refectory, washrooms and toilets, a church and a prison. Police officers surveyed the volunteers from Montreuil-Bellay who guarded the camp. Franciscan missionaries volunteered and lived in the camp with the prisoners to teach the children. There are reports of lice, disease and starvation in Archives Départementales de Maine-et-Loire. According to local schoolteacher and historian from Montreuil-Bellay Jacques Sigot, a great number of the deaths were a result of starvation, particularly amongst pregnant women and infant children. The sanitary conditions of the camp were deplorable. Indeed, the Maine-et-Loire archives from 1943 outline failed attempts to improve the conditions with the termination of a construction of bathing facilities, stating that they “cannot realize its completion because of the administrative authority’s incapacity to obtain cement, because of the lack of wagon” (file 97w, 48, 1942–1944). The Archives also indicate that prisoners of the camp were permitted to leave, on three exceptional conditions: if they have a secured job, a fixed accommodation, and the approval of the mayor of the town in which they intend to live. It is unlikely that this system allowed the release of many prisoners. Through personal conversations with the archivists in Angers, I learnt that prisoners could only obtain a job through a family member living in the community and, considering the community efforts to imprison Roma and Sinti people, the likelihood of having a family member either in the community, or capable of finding employment is, too, unlikely. The Archives demonstrated this truth, with a dossier of denied requests.

The camp was officially closed in September 1944 after heavy bombardments over June and July 1944, leaving many wounded and killed. Some prisoners were transported to the other camps in the region, firstly Camp de Choisel in Châteaubriant, then to Camp des Alliers in Angoulême, Charente and Camp de Jargeau in Jargeau, Loiret in October 1944, where they were released in June 1946, thirteen months after the end of the war in May 1945. The camp of Montreuil-Bellay nonetheless continued to imprison Roma and Sinti people until January 16, 1945, when the remaining 498 were released. The camp of Montreuil-Bellay later became a prison for German soldiers, many of whom were female soldiers from Natzweiler-Struthof, who were captured by the French Forces of the Interior and liberation armies. Quickly, the camp was destroyed and left to ruin. In archival photographs of the region, we can clearly see the buildings in 1945. By 1959, there was little more than what we see can today at the site; foundation blocks of the building, the prison, and stairs.

Henty Funambulist 5
Current remains of the Concentration Camp of Montreuil-Bellay. / Photograph by Suzannah Henty (April 2017).

While the traces of this camp in the collective memory of France have struggled to survive in the face of a society that ignored this history and disavow their responsibility, what remains of the camp might not exist if not for the work of Jacques Sigot. He first wrote about the camp in 1983 in his text “This Barbed Wire Forgotten by History” (“Ces barbelés oubliés par l’Histoire”), twelve years before the former French president Jacques Chirac in 1995 had even acknowledged France’s collaborative involvement with the deportation of Jewish French citizens during the War. If not for Sigot, the Archives of Anjou would not have the photos they have today that were acquired through close relationships the teacher had developed over decades engaging with the community of former interns of Montreuil-Bellay, all of whom have since passed away. It was Sigot who initiated the process for heritage classification and protection of the camp. In 2008, the site was named as a historical monument, recognized on a regional level and, in 2013, the jail, refectory, school, infirmary, latrine and lodgment were classed as “historical monuments,” thus obtaining national level recognition. Any text written on this site must recognize the fundamental work of Sigot in the protection of its memory against the threat of it becoming another forgotten testimony of the Pořajmos in France.

The fight for the recognition of the Pořajmos and the treatment of Roma, Romani, Yenish, Manouche, and Sinti people by the French society and government is far from being resolved. The various channels through which recognition can take place include the acknowledgement of the existing built heritage of racist institutions. Of the 31 camps that existed in France for “nomads,” the concentration camp of Montreuil-Bellay is the only camp officially listed. The life of architecture, of a building and its intention, appropriation and function, plays an integral role in the legitimization of cultural identity. This is especially true for France, a country that is triumphed for its built cultural heritage. The preservation and recognition of the concentration camp of Montreuil-Bellay is especially significant as it is one of the lasting physical testimonies to the historical racism against this population in France. It represents the way the government has justified the hardening of conservative regimes against those who are considered threats to their national identity. The camp equally speaks to the manner in which racist policy flattens diversity, through incorporating the terms “nomads,” “gypsies” and “travelling people” to construct one falsified and homogenized minority. This short introduction into the way that patrimonialization occurs is only a minor contribution to the broader study of how racist institutions are remembered. The fight for the protection of memories and traces of institutions that have been founded and run by oppressive states and the need to enable the sharing of silenced testimonies continues.