Vernet-d'Ariège internment camp
Entrance to the camp in Vernet. Source: Amicale des Anciens
Repressive internment camp for ‘undesirable foreigners’ and then, from 1940, a Jewish deportation camp.
The Memorial of Vernet-d'Ariège Internment Camp is a tribute to the concentration camp for Spanish refugees that operated from February to September 1939 and was then converted into a repressive internment camp for ‘undesirable foreigners’ and later, in 1940, a deportation camp for Jews.
Building of Camp Vernet started in June 1918 to house colonial troops. At the end of the First World War, it was transformed into a camp for German and Austrian prisoners.
In the interwar period, it was used to warehouse military equipment before being commissioned in February 1930, after the defeat of the Spanish Republican army, to 'house' thousands of Spanish civilians and military personnel who sought refuge in France where public opinion and the political class were split between the fear of communism (the right) and the solidarity shown by the left-wing parties for the Republican cause. The French civilian and military authorities decided to open up Camp Vernet and the Mazères brickyard to refugees.
Between 10-12,000 Spanish, in particular anarchist militia from the Durruti Column and inter-brigadistas, were crammed into 19 dilapidated barrack buildings and 5,000 refugees in Mazères were sheltered in tents in living conditions that were deplorable, despite assistance from the local population, humanitarian organisations and left-wing party members.
In September 1939, France had declared war against Nazi Germany with whom the URSS had signed a non-aggression pact. Accordingly, German citizens and foreign communists (Spanish, Italians, Yugoslavians, etc.) and all aliens (white Russian, Jews, Gypsies) were arrested on French soil and interned in Camp Vernet, which became a ‘repressive camp for foreign suspects’, the only one of its kind in France: "At the camps in Gurs, Argelès, Rivesaltes or Les Milles there is no need for discipline as strict as that imposed in Vernet where ex-convicts and extremists are held." (Vichy. Ministry of the Interior. Circular of 17 January 1941).
After the Armistice was signed in June 1940, the country was divided by a demarcation line. The north and the Atlantic perimeter of France was under the control of the German army. A ‘free zone’ was created in the south of the country. It was controlled by the government recently formed by Marshal Pétain in Vichy that practised State Collaboration with Germany. Thus from the autumn of 1940, Jews were interned at the camp in Vernet before being deported to Germany and the number of roundups in the region and deportations increased from summer 1942 when German authorities took control of the non-occupied zone. Activity at the camp gradually declined from 1944.
On 15 June, the Germans evacuated the last 400 internees in a final convoy dubbed the “phantom train”. In total, some 40,000 people from 58 nations were crammed into the huts in Vernet. A fortnight later, on 30 June, the camp was used as a detention centre for German prisoners and soldiers from the Turkestan Legion. The camp in Vernet covered 120 acres and was divided into three sections: A, B and C. Each section was cut off from the others by trenches and barbed wire and was appointed a specific purpose. Section A was reserved for ordinary prisoners from overseas; section B for political convicts, and section C for those suspected of crimes or those detained for political reasons. This is where author and journalist Arthur Koestler was interned from October 1939 to January 1940, as was German journalist and author Louis Emrich, film-maker Jacques Haïk, Georgian Prince Victor Karumidzé, Italian designer Thomas Sarti, painter Emile Pitoum, Karl Frisch and Friedrich Wolf.
Ultimately, a large portion of the anti-Fascist ‘elite’ found themselves imprisoned in the camp in Vernet. The Spanish and Italian libertarians got close to the leaders of the International Brigades who, in making contact with the German communists, organised a "mini-komintern" in October 1939. And so the camp became a reservoir of leaders from the European resistance movement and saw the organisation of escapes and intelligence, infiltration and sabotage operations against the German army, and the training of leaders of the Yugoslavian, Albanian, Czech, Hungarian and other national resistance movements and other activities to stop the enemy.
The camp buildings are no longer standing, the last barracks being demolished in the 1970s to create land for growing cereal crops. All that remains are the château and the posts marking the entrance to the camp, plus the guard barracks that were converted into housing, on the other side of the RN20 highway.
On the rails of the former camp train station stands a KZ train carriage, identical to those used to transport the internees to the death camps, containing a plaque bearing the names of 40 Jewish children aged 2 to 17, who were deported from Vernet to Auschwitz on 1 September 1942.
Until 30 November 1940, then until 19 June 1943, the premises of the town’s hospital served as an internment centre for sick, infirm and elderly prisoners. Letters in the departmental archives are a testament to this population of internee.
Threatened with destruction in the 1970s, the cemetery was saved in the commune of Saverdun thanks to a campaign led by former prisoners of the camp in Vernet and by Lucien Amiel, Mayor of Saverdun. Some 153 graves still lie in this cemetery, the eternal resting place of Spanish, Russians, Polish, Italians, Yugoslavans, Armenians, Czech, Chinese, Portuguese, Hungarians, Romanians and other nationalities for daring to fight against Hitler’s policies and defend the liberty and peace of people everywhere.
This memorial is a tribute to the concentration camp for Spanish refugees from February to September 1939 which was then converted into a repressive internment camp for ‘undesirable foreigners’ during the Second World War until June 1944.
Mairie de Vernet (Vernet Town Hall)
09700 Vernet d'Ariège
Tel. +33 (0)5 61 68 36 43
Saverdun Tourist Information Office
Aire de Périès 09700 Saverdun
Tel: +33 (0)5 61 60 09 10
Fax: +33 (0)5 61 60 99 91
Amicale des Anciens Internés politiques et résistants du Camp du Vernet d'Ariège (Association of Former Political and Resistance Internees at the camp in Vernet d'Ariège)
AAI du Camp du Vernet d'Ariège 09700 Le Vernet d'Ariège
Visits The cemetery is open to visitors all year round. To visit the exhibition hall or enquire about guided tours, please contact Vernet Town Hall on +33 (0)5 61 68 36 43.
Source: Cohen, Monique-Lise and Malo, Eric, dir., Les camps du sud-ouest de la France 1939-1944. Exclusion, internement, déportation, Toulouse, Privat, 1994, etc.
05 61 68 36 43 06 09 28 11 73 06 79 90 30 48
No appointment required: Mondays, Tuesdays and Thursdays from 8.30 am to midday and 1.30 pm to 5 pm. Fridays from 8.30 am to midday and 3 pm to 6.30 pm.