MONTREUIL-BELLAY, France (AP) — It’s a thistle-tangled field behind a hedge of blackberries, with little to catch the eye but three surreal staircases that rise out of the parched grass and lead to nowhere.
Not much is left of the camp where thousands of French Gypsies were interned in this village in the Saumur wine region during World War II. Here, hungry children once crowded behind barbed wire, hoping Sunday strollers might toss them leftover food. Anyone caught trying to escape was locked in a filthy hole underground, a prison within a prison.
As today’s France expels a wave of Romanian gypsies seeking an escape from hardship back home, children of the camp’s survivors have been drawing up plans for a memorial to the site’s chilling past. They have been caught up in a battle against what they say is state-sponsored discrimination today against some of Europe’s most marginalized, misunderstood minorities.
This shameful episode of French history is little known and isn’t in the school textbooks: Under the German Occupation, thousands of Gypsies, mostly citizens of France, were rounded up and put in 31 internment camps administered and guarded by their fellow Frenchmen.
Perhaps most shocking in this country that considers itself the cradle of human rights is that France kept some Gypsies locked up until 1946, after the end of the Nazi occupation. Hitler’s troops were gone, Gen. Charles de Gaulle’s provisional government was in charge, and the French had only themselves to blame.
Montreuil-Bellay, the largest camp, was finally classified as a protected historic site in July, years after part of it was razed to build a traffic roundabout. Today only the underground prison is still intact, with a bird’s nest and moss clinging to its stone ceiling. Cows graze among the ruins.
Questions are growing about the future of the site. A lawmaker brought it up to parliament recently, urging its restoration or a monument to the site’s history.
French Gypsy activist Milo Delage is working on plans for a memorial that he envisions as “something simple. A place for reflection.” He also believes the lessons of the past are crucial now, and says France today is experiencing “all the same ingredients” of the prewar years, including racism and discrimination.
Before President Nicolas Sarkozy went away on summer vacation in the Riviera, just weeks after Montreuil-Bellay won protected status, he called an unusual meeting: He wanted to discuss “behavior problems” within communities of Gypsies, those whose families have been in France for centuries and their distant cousins now arriving from Eastern Europe.
France’s traditional Gypsies refer to themselves as “tsiganes,” and many say they are being unfairly lumped together with the recent arrivals from Eastern Europe referred to here as Roms, or Roma.
Sarkozy’s meeting was a response to riots that had broken out in central France in July after a policeman shot and killed a fleeing French Gypsy youth in circumstances still under investigation. Gypsies in the town of Saint-Aignan allegedly cut down trees, broke windows and burned cars.
Sarkozy’s meeting left many Gypsies feeling stigmatized, as if the government viewed them all as troublemakers. Then Sarkozy launched his widely criticized crackdown on the Roma, blaming them for rising crime and putting hundreds on planes home, mostly to Romania. He said their illegal camps were sources of “illicit trafficking, deeply disgraceful living conditions and the exploitation of children through begging, prostitution and delinquency.”
Such a targeted crackdown by the French president on any other minority would have been unthinkable. Officially, the French government is blind to color, ethnicity and religion and does not keep tabs on minorities.
“We’re the outsiders within,” said activist Delage, a furniture salesman who lives in a mobile home, moving from place to place like his ancestors did. He says Sarkozy’s comments hit the community like “a blow with a club.”
Delage’s grandparents, father and three uncles were held for 18 months at Montreuil-Bellay during World War II. The betrayal was perhaps sharpest for his grandfather: He was a decorated veteran who had fought for France in the previous world war, losing a leg in battle.
In 1940, soon before the Nazi occupation, France’s then-President Albert Lebrun ordered Gypsies to stop traveling, saying their itinerant lifestyle made them a spying risk. Later that year, the Germans ordered French Gypsies into local internment camps.
The fate of French Gypsies was unusual — and by the horrific standards of the time, less devastating than elsewhere in Europe.
Gypsies from other Nazi-occupied countries were sent en masse to death camps — according to the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum, between 196,000 and 220,000 Gypsies were killed in the Holocaust.
France kept Gypsies in its own camps, the Nazis did not ask for them to be handed over, and only several hundred French Gypsies ended up in death camps. By contrast, about 75,000-76,000 Jews were deported from France, of whom only 2,500 survived.
Marie-Christine Hubert, a historian who co-authored a book about the Gypsies’ wartime fate, said the French rounded up 6,500 Gypsies and other wanderers for internment but were not “zealous” about tracking down the rest.
The French internment camps were not death camps, but food was scarce, disease was rampant, and many died untimely deaths. The last Gypsies were released in late May 1946, even after Nazi collaborators were freed, Hubert says.
For years, the camps were largely forgotten. Many Gypsies were afraid to discuss the ordeal, and because they had a mostly oral tradition, they didn’t put their stories to paper. Many of those still alive are reluctant to discuss the war.
One exception is Raymond Gureme, interned outside Paris as a teenager. Today, he recalls his hunger and his escapes, dismissing any attempt to pass all blame off on the Germans.
“I never saw a German there,” Gureme told a conference this spring.
France has had a difficult time coming to terms with its crimes under Vichy. It wasn’t until 1995 that then-President Jacques Chirac made history by acknowledging that France bore responsibility for deporting Jews, breaking with the official position that Vichy was not the French state.
Gypsy activists have promoted this year as one of remembrance about the internment. Awareness has grown, too, thanks to a recent documentary and a feature film addressing the Gypsies’ wartime fate.
France’s veterans minister acknowledged this July that the Gypsies had been victims of “racist crimes by the French state.” It was a long-awaited speech — so Gypsies felt even more betrayed when Sarkozy launched his Gypsy crackdown just days later.
Officially, the French government refers to French Gypsies who still lead an itinerant lifestyle as “gens du voyage” — traveling people — a status that applies, in theory, to many people with no fixed address. Several hundred thousand people are believed to fall into the category.
“Gens du voyage” are required to have a special state-issued document requiring them to check in with authorities as often as every three months. Those who don’t comply risk penalties of up to a year in prison.
Gypsy groups are meeting with lawmakers Tuesday to air their grievances about the document, which many find humiliating and discriminatory. It was created in 1969 to replace an identity card for itinerant populations that was downright chilling, bearing information on the size of the holder’s head, right ear and left foot.
Even some steps in the right direction have been bungled. A law requires all towns larger than 5,000 people to set aside terrain for Gypsies’ mobile homes. Many have ignored the order.
In Montreuil-Bellay, retired schoolteacher Jacques Sigot has worked for three decades to get word out on what happened in this picturesque walled village surrounded by vineyards.
He speaks bitterly about France’s wartime attitude.
With the Gypsies behind barbed wire, “people would say, ‘they aren’t stealing our chickens,'” Sigot said. ‘People were happy, were satisfied the Gypsies were locked up.”