The forgotten wartime persecution of France's 'nomads'

By Pierre-Yves Bulteau

The shameful mass internment of gypsies in camps across France between 1940 and 1946 remained a largely forgotten wartime episode until it finally received official recognition three years ago. Later this month, as part of that process, a ceremony will take place in homage to those who were placed in one of the camps, at Moisdon-la-Rivière in north-west France, where some died from the dire conditions. Pierre-Yves Bulteau traces the history of the persecution, and interviews survivors and witnesses of the horrors at the camp for "nomads" at Moisdon-la-Rivière.

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For Christophe Sauvé, “one must always put life there where there is death”. Sauvé is a Catholic priest and chaplain for the gypsy community, into which he was born, in the diocese of Nantes, in north-west France. For the past ten years he has painstakingly researched through the diocesan archives to create a register of the names of those from the community who died in the region where one of France’s shameful wartime secrets was, in 2016, finally officially recognised.   

In one of the wings of the vast and imposing old building that houses the diocesan archives, situated in the centre of the town of Nantes, are kept the parish registers of Moisdon-la-Rivière and other villages in the Pays de Châteaubriant, a largely rural area, in the north-east of the local Loire-Atlantique département (county), and which surrounds the small town of Châteaubriant.

Between November 1940 and May 1942, during the German occupation of France, 567 adults and children from the Romany gypsy population were held at a concentration camp at Moisdon-la-Rivière, known as the “camp de la Forge”. Rounded up by French police under the orders of the collaborationist Vichy puppet regime led by Marshal Philippe Pétain, the “nomads”, the term applied to them and other itinerant groups, were kept in dreadful conditions of insalubrity. A small plaque at the site records that the interned families lived “in deplorable sanitary conditions, causing the deaths of several children”.

Between 1940 and 1946, around 6,500 nomads were interned in more than 40 camps in France, most of them in the German-occupied zone.

Until recently, the horror of the camp de la Forge remained largely forgotten after the end of the Second World War, and even unknown to future generations in the region, which is forever marked by another tragedy in the sad history of occupied France; in a quarry close to Châteaubriant in October 1941, in reprisal for the killing of the local commander of the German forces, 49 members of the French Resistance, most of them detained communists and who included 17-year-old Guy Moquet, who remains a celebrated example of the heroism of the Resistance movement, were executed by firing squad. They were chosen from a list of detainees recommended to the Germans for execution by the Vichy regime.

It was while researching newly released public archive documents about the executions as part of her history studies at Nantes university that Émilie Jouand, who comes from the region, first discovered the existence of the camp de la Forge in Moisdon-la-Rivière. She chose to write a memoir on the subject, which was published in 2006 under the title La Concentration des nomades en Loire-Inférieure – ‘The concentration of nomads in the Lower-Loire’, the former name of the département.

For Jouand, the fate of the gypsies became obscured due to prejudices that continue today. “The history of this population in particular was made forgotten, because of their way of life, because of the absence of academics among them, and because they are victims of prejudices which still exist,” she told Mediapart in an interview last year (sound extract below).

Émilie Jouand: 'prejudices well rooted since way back'.

“That’s to say, who is interested in the lives of French ‘travellers’ today? […] Who is interested in their history? And then, it can sometimes cause fear, because they are not the only groups who fell victim to that […] You can find front pages of [former wide selling French daily] Le Petit Journal from the beginning of the 20th century where they are treated as petty thieves, the children as robbing chickens, prejudices which are well rooted since way back in French memory and mentality, and which continued after the war.”

“To properly understand how things came to such extremes,” said Jouand of the camp de la Forge and the other internment sites for “nomads” across France, “one must see the context of a French state which took advantage of the reigning tensions with Germany to create a vast system of control of populations which circulated on its territory.”

A law regulating the “exercise of ambulant professions and the circulation of nomads”, adopted by French parliament on July 16th 1912, defined three categories of population which were to be issued with anthropometric identity cards that carried frontal and side-on mugshots. These concerned travelling salesmen, whether French nationals or not, and fairground people and stallholders, and “nomads”. The latter were foreigners who were in France to find work or people with no fixed abode, travelling from job to job in industry or agriculture, but also Romany families, many of whose members had been present in France over several generations.

Marcel Laisis: 'We lived in the camp like dogs.' © PYB Marcel Laisis: 'We lived in the camp like dogs.' © PYB

Marcel Laisis, a gypsy in his eighties and a great-grandfather several times over, is a survivor of the camp de la Forge where he was interned with his family when he was four-years-old.  He now lives on the “aire d’accueil de la Fardière” in Nantes, a dedicated site for travellers maintained by the town authorities. He recalled the period of the special ID cards. “My family came directly from Italy and I remember very well my grandfather telling me about these collective cards,” he said, to the thrumming backdrop of traffic crossing the bridge above. “Inside, you had to note down the colour of the horse, of the carriage, the vaccinations and a photo of each member of the family, including the children as of five-years-old. It was obligatory, and you had to check in with it to the gendarmerie every day. Every time you arrived and when you left, otherwise – watch out – it’d be an infraction. My father, he did two months in prison for that, for one day when he forgot to show the family ID card. Two months in prison!”

As the outbreak of the Second World War approached, to the sound of marching boots from the east, many families with names that sounded Italian or German fell under increasing suspicion. “Among the Romany, you find different groups who changed their names according to where they lived,” said Emilie Jouand. “The Manouches were in the west of France, the gypsies in the south, the Romanichels in the north-west. The Sinti came from Italy, the Roma from Bulgaria.”

Fearing a “Fifth Column”, the French authorities used the powers of the July 1912 law to move nomad groups from the Paris region into rural areas in the autumn of 1939, shortly after the outbreak of war. It was much like a sort of house arrest on a regional scale. Then, a decree introduced on April 6th 1940, two months before the fall of France to invading German (and Italian) forces, ordered a halt to the circulation of “nomads” on a national scale.

“At a time of war, the circulation of nomads, erring individuals, generally homeless, belonging to no state and without any effective profession, represent, for national defence and the safeguarding of secrecy, a danger that must be excluded,” read the decree. Citing the risk that they could discover French army positions which they would be “susceptible to communicate to enemy agents”, the travellers were to be henceforth placed in “forced residence” under police surveillance.

After the French defeat, and under the collaborationist regime of Vichy, the decree used  by the German occupying forces. “This logic of making use of already existing internal laws was practiced very often by Nazi Germany,” commented Jouand. “This had the advantage of getting the local population to more easily accept what were in reality discriminatory measures. In October 1940, the prefects [regional administrative chiefs] in the occupied zone were asked to organise the creation of camps in which to lock up the nomads.”

The prefect of what was then the Loire-Inférieure département (the unfortunate choice of name referred to the “lower” part of the Loire river where it reaches the Atlantic Ocean a short distance from Nantes) requisitioned the camp de la Forge in Moisdon-la-Rivière. The site already existed, having been used between 1937 and 1939 as a detention centre for Republican refugees arriving from Spain in their flight from the advance of General Francisco Franco’s fascist forces during the 1936-1939 Spanish Civil War.

The camp de la Forge opened on November 11th 1940. Encircled by the River Don, surrounded by forestland and set within a rock face, this former industrial site was anything but hospitable. Some of the internees were allowed to live in overcrowded wagon-trailors they owned, but many others were confined to unheated dormitories. There was no drinking water nor showers. Food rations were inadequate, just as were medical supplies. Between the end of January and the beginning of February 1941, six infants, all aged less than two-years-old, died in the camp.

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