The freezing wet French police waved their batons at the approaching rusty trucks. The lucky ones, 40 or 50 at time eagerly crammed into the stained canvassed topped vehicles that afforded them a brief respite on their way to freedom. For those not afforded such a luxury, their spirits could not be dampened while they waited in lines trying to once again pronounce New York, Philadelphia, Chicago, Milwaukee, Brooklyn and Boston. An energized Kurt shivered while he sounded out, “Feel-oh-deal-fee-ha” before he looked back at an approaching train. Kurt pulled hard on his uncle’s coat. Julius picked Kurt up and placed him on his shoulder. The crowd mumbled, “What is this? Are we going back home?” A disgusted French policeman glared at the unexpected train. He angrily pointed his baton at his superior. “If there are any more I’m going back home.”

The senior officer quelled the mini-mutiny with a look not too dissimilar from that of an unhappy parent to a petulant child. He cautiously approached a police officer who jumped from the stopping train. The unnerved Captain accepted the written order, while hundreds more disoriented Jews fell out onto the muddy area around the station. Kurt’s uncle lowered Kurt to the ground and swatted away at the baton of a nearby officer before he placed his hands and knees into the muddy ground at the rear of a truck. He swore in German before he motioned to his mother, who held onto Isack and Ilse, while she climbed into the uncovered truck for the 11 mile trip.

After two hours, Kurt heard the mutterings of people farther down the line of trucks. “Mutti what is that?” said Kurt as a two inch pool of water rolled back and forth over his disintegrating shoes. But there was no answer from his mother or any of the other people pointing at the sign that sharpened under the glow from the weak headlights. Kurt pulled at the wet collar of his mother’s coat and whispered, “Mutti, I don’t understand this. What is CAMP DE GURS and why are we here?”





Spain and France’s natural border, the Pyrenees Mountains with its vast deposits of granite and limestone, spans 270 miles from the Bay of Biscay at the northeast corner of Spain to the Mediterranean Sea to the east. Formed 150 million years ago from a single block of the earth’s crust with peaks rising to heights greater than 11,000 feet, the mountains could not deter a unique sense of fraternity between the two nations. Located in southwest France lived some of those very people in the small town of Gurs. The only notoriety for this farming community of 502 people came from the fact that Lourdes, a place of miraculous healings, was 54 miles to the southeast. The complicated set of events that allowed Camp de Gurs to be built, and more importantly, for its gate to open on the evening of October 25, 1940, began more than two decades earlier with World War I.

The cost of World War I for France was over 1,300,000 dead, 3,000,000 wounded and a birth rate that plummeted. Additionally, by 1919, it had only half of the able bodied 19-21 year olds. The resulting shortage of 3,000,000 workers was by necessity filled by foreigners; whose eventual presence over time energized an emerging resentment towards its once needed guests.

Years later, in 1934, 1,000,000 French people were left unemployed as a result of the worldwide depression. This was at a time when France maintained its long standing tenet that it was an island of asylum for the disaffected of Europe. This noble concept, which emanated from an ancient notion of providing an inviolable place of refuge and protection, was continually tested throughout the pre war years of the 1930’s. The growing tension between the French and foreigners, eventually gave way to anti-foreigner legislation that challenged France’s long standing principle of being the conscience of Europe. In the years before the great depression, those seeking political asylum or work in France were referred to as aliens or foreigners; but by the end of the 1930’s, with the emergence of Hitler’s Germany, the transparent euphemisms were discarded for a simpler direct label, Jews.

In March 1938, after the annexation of Austria by Germany, thousands of Austrians fled their native country. They became part of the 180,000 German speaking refugees who entered France to escape Hitler’s Germany. Many were Jews who entered illegally. Months later, with the world on the brink of war, France once again declared new laws that would maintain its position as the conscience of Europe. Although the clear statement in the preamble of new legislation declared that France was a place of refuge, the actual laws made an expulsion order of an alien or foreigner almost impossible to appeal. These laws manifested the changing and conflicted psyche of the French.

France‘s struggle with its foreigners continued with its July 20, 1939 order that all foreign men of draft age, including Jews register for the military draft. Six weeks later on September 4, 1939, the day after France declared war against Germany, men from Austria and Germany from the ages of 17 to 50 were ordered interned. Then in the spring of 1940, 25,000 more German and Austrian foreigners were interned. The anti-foreigner sentiment was directed towards the German and Austrian Jews whose presence it was argued, was the cause of its continuing financial despair and its involvement in yet another world war. This sentiment was legitimized in the summer of 1940 when France instituted laws that sanctioned anti-Semitic excesses in the press. In October of 1940, the French government, without any pressure from its Nazi victors, enacted laws that excluded Jews from the military, the judiciary, civil service, newspapers, movies and radio. Finally, Algerian Jews who had been granted French citizenship in 1871 saw this right taken away. The process of going from a host nation of political asylum to anti-Jew had taken less than ten years...