The Drancy internment camp was the main transit camp for French Jews. During the course of the Nazi occupation of France, at least 65,000 Jews were deported from here to extermination camps. Only about 2000 survived. The Nazis chose this modernist housing estate in a north-eastern suburb of Paris as the nation’s main deportation centre because of its proximity to several railways stations, including the one at nearby Bobigny. French police, under the control of the Vichy Government, were in charge of the camp’s administration until 1943.
The Vichy regime had been quick to instigate the antisemitic policies demanded by the Nazis. On 3 October 1940, it adopted a “loi portant statut des Juifs” (a law on the status of Jews), which, among other things, excluded Jews from the professions, confiscated their bicycles and cars, and forbade them from frequenting restaurants, cafes, and museums. But exclusion wasn’t enough. On 14 May 1941, the first raids against Jews were carried out in Paris. More than 3700 men were rounded up and interned at the Pithiviers camp in the Loiret region of France. In August, the first Jews – a total of 4232 – arrived at Drancy after a raid organized by the French police. Conditions were so bad and disease so rampant that in November, 800 of these prisoners – mainly children and the sick – were freed. But such seeming acts of magnanimity were short-lived with the establishment of the Nazi policy of genocide in 1942.
The first convoy to leave Paris for Auschwitz contained 1112 inmates from Drancy. Between July 1942 and July 1943, 40,000 men, women, and children were deported from Drancy, mostly to Auschwitz. In July 1943, the SS took formal control of the camp under the odious Alois Brunner. (I don’t use the word “odious” lightly: in 1987, Brunner said during a telephone interview to the Chicago Sun Times, “The Jews deserved to die. They were garbage, I have no regrets. If I had the chance I would do it again…”. In 2001, a French court found him guilty in absentia of crimes against humanity. Last spotted in Syria, he is one of the few high-ranking Nazi officials believed to still be alive.) Brunner was able to bring more order to the running of the camp, but the brutalities and deportations continued. On 31 July 1944, just 25 days before France was liberated, the last train left from Drancy containing 1300 victims, including 300 Jewish children who had been snatched from a Parisian orphanage; the parents of most of these children had already been deported. The camp was finally liberated in August 1944; only 1500 of the 65,000 Jews who had been imprisoned here remained.
Visiting Drancy today is a somewhat unsettling experience. Despite the atrocities that went on here, it is now once again a rundown Parisian housing estate – a so-called banlieue. The buildings that housed thousands of Jewish prisoners before they were sent to Auschwitz now provide homes to French citizens. The square where the prisoners assembled and were required to stand for hours now contains grass and trees. It was only in 1970 that a memorial was erected here: a sculpture of distorted human figures flanked by two crescent-shaped monoliths. A section of railway track leads from the sculpture to a train wagon that bears a Star of David. There are a few plaques situated around the estate – one to the poet Max Jacob, who died here; another to the British soldiers who were held at Drancy in 1940 – but the office of the Conservatoire Historique du Camp de Drancy, at no. 15, seems to no longer be doing much to preserve the history of what happened here, as the photograph below reveals.