The ‘Camp des Milles’, an internment and transit camp, which opened in September 1939, was in operation for just over three years and during that period over 10,000 internees were held there. The camp was a converted tile factory in the centre of Les Milles just South-West of Aix. Immediately after France declared war on Germany in September 1939, all German and Austrian nationals living in the South were interned in such ‘camps’, all assumed to be a danger to the country. Although these foreigners were deemed to be ‘enemy subjects’, for the most part they were anti-Nazis who had fled Germany during the years prior to the outbreak of war. Among those early internees were some world renowned intelligentsia; literary figures (Fritz Brugel, Lion Feuchtwanger, William Herzog, Alfred Kantorowicz, Golo Mann, son of Thomas Mann, etc.), scientist Otto Meyerof, (Nobel Prize winner), musicians and painters Erich Itor Kahn, Hans Bellmer, Max Ernst, Herman Henry Gowa, Gustave Herlich, Max Lingner, Ferdinand Springer and Franz Meyer.
On June 10th 1940, faced with imminent military defeat by Germany, The French National Assembly gave extraordinary powers to Marshal Philippe Pétain; Marshal Pétain was immediately known as ‘Head of the French State’. He dissolved Parliament and created a non-democratic government collaborating with Germany. On the 22nd June that year, Vichy France was established after France had surrendered to Germany; the government’s name taken from the town near Paris where it was based. Under the Vichy regime the camp quickly became over populated, there were over 3,500 internees held by this time. It was during this period that the ‘Train des Milles’ became infamous, as depicted in the 1995 film ‘Les Milles – Le Train de la Liberté’ by Sébastien Grall. Foreigners from other French internment camps were transferred to Les Milles, in particular members of the Spanish ‘International Brigade’ and Jews originating from other European countries. Then in November 1940, the camp was placed under the responsibility of the Ministry of Interior and became officially known as a ‘transit’ camp; a collection point before deportation, mainly for French and foreign Jews.
It was during the period 1940 to 1941 that the famous murals were painted in the camp by the artistic inmates.
In total, even before the German occupation of the Southern zone of France, more than 2,500 Jews (men, women and children) were sent by the Vichy government from the Camp des Milles to the death camp in Auschwitz by way of another ‘transit’ camp in Drancy, North East of Paris. When the so-called ‘Free Zone’ was finally occupied by the German army in November 1942, the camp was closed and its last occupants left in the December.
The tile factory was re-opened immediately after the war and was subsequently bought by the current owners, Lafarge. Work is being done on other parts of the factory and in 2009 more will be opened to the public for viewing.
The paintings can today be seen in what was the old dining hall; it is open to the public each week day 09:00 – 12:00 and 12:45 -17:00hrs). For more information call 04 42 24 33 02. The railway wagon that was used to transport prisoners to Drancy and Auschwitz is kept a couple of hundred meters from the factory; one can visit the wagon during the same hours. It is necessary to call 04 42 33 17 11 to contact the wagon key holder and you will be met there. The wagon is full of photographs, reports and information and it is very easy to become emotional when viewing. Certainly our visit did that and gave us a greater insight to our historical knowledge.