This quote from George Santayana written in 1905 is what convicted me as I soberly walked the cemetery and memorial grounds of the Concentration Camp of Vernet d’Ariège, opened initially in 1939 as a refugee detainment camp for Spanish Republican soldiers fleeing Franco’s regime. Within 7 months of opening, it was formally designated a concentration camp to lock up “the undesirable aliens,” particularly some volunteers who had fought Franco, political opponents of Hitler, Mussolini and Petain, and members of the French Resistence, according to the museum phamplet.
What was truly striking in the memorial cemetery is the global nature of its inhabitants. Each of these posts represents a country of someone(s) incarcerated in the camp. 215 people died at the camp, and 152 are resting at the cemetery, covering a large percentage of the represented countries.
More than 4500 people passed through this camp, including 90 Jewish children sent here from Auschwitz, ages 2-17. Some were incarcerated for having once espoused Communist views, including one man who fled Hungary because he had changed to anti-Communist views. He was an artist, and his enrollment photos were smiling. He painted and drew the most haunting depictions of men in the camp, and was described as a model prisoner who improved the corps de esprit of the whole camp.
The years people spent here together were obviously a bonding time of survival, because even some survivors chose to join their comrades here after life.
Not all who died, are here. Many were deported out of camp, some to even more repressive camps in Algeria, some to Mussolini’s prisons in Italy, some to forced labor, most to Nazi extermination camps. About a quarter of these latter persons were among the last convoy forming the main contingent of the Ghost Train, often dying in transit. Note the survivor of the Ghost Train above, though! This is a spot of victory, of hope!
These train cars were supposed to house 60 men or 8 horses. They often crammed up to 100 people in one of these things. This one is a memorial to the children who occupied it, listed on a plaque inside.
I am glad Theodore was with us. As sobering as it was, it was at a level he could absorb without being overwhelmed. And most amazingly, we met the mayor of the town at the museum, who is himself a survivor. He told us (through our friend) that he arrived at 10 months old with his parents as refugees from Spain. He endured decades of prejudice, even though he was married to a French woman and had French children. He fought hard with France to be allowed to become a French citizen because he insisted he arrived in a concentration camp and wouldn’t change his story to be politically correct, but today he is not only a citizen, but the mayor of the town that once housed the camp. We have so much to learn from this man. We must remember.