Tuesday, October 05, 2004

France went to extraordinary lengths to hide as much evidence of the Nazi collaboration as possible

Here is another story we read and hear less about in the French media than in the foreign news reports. (Unless I am mistaken or being overly cynical, it also gives a very different perspective on France's role before, during, and after the Iraq crisis.)

After the liberation De Gaulle's government held on to internees from many countries in officially closed centres to hide collaboration, writes The Guardian's Jon Henley from Paris

The government of Charles de Gaulle held hundreds of foreigners … in an internment camp near Toulouse for up to four years after the second world war, according to secret documents.

The papers, part of a cache of 12,000 photocopied illegally by an Austrian-born Jew, reveal the extent to which French officials collaborated with their fleeing Nazi occupiers even as their country was being liberated. They also show that, when the war was over, France went to extraordinary lengths to hide as much evidence of that collaboration as possible.

The documents are in a mass of registers, telegrams and manifests which Kurt Werner Schaechter, an 84-year-old retired businessman, copied from the Toulouse office of France's national archives in 1991. They are uniquely precious: under a 1979 law most of France's wartime archives are sealed for between 60 and 150 years after they were written.

"This is an untold story of the dark side of France's liberation 60 years ago," Mr Schaechter, a former musical instruments salesman, said at his home in Alfortville, a Paris suburb. "French functionaries were involved in a national scandal that continued until 1949: the despicable treatment of allied and neutral civilians interned during the war."

Mr Schaechter's activities — last year he used some of the papers to try to force the French railway SNCF to admit its responsibility in shipping 76,000 Jews to Nazi death camps — have infuriated some French historians, who say their privileged access to classified archives has been compromised. But others have backed the campaign for freer access to documents relating to a part of France's past that it has long preferred to ignore.

By far the most awkward of his recently unearthed documents are those that appear to show that Noé camp, 25 miles south of Toulouse, continued to function secretly for several years after the war. … Officially, the only camps still open after 1945 were a handful housing Romanies, stateless persons and French collaborators. But Mr Schaechter says his documents indicate that a "special section" of Noé was active until at least 1947. … The camp's accounts show that inmates were still being forced to pay for their "lodging" in September 1947.

Photocopies of the camp's registers from 1945, 1946 and 1947 show that Noé's postwar inmates [included citizens of Britain,] Switzerland, Sweden, Holland, Belgium, Spain, Portugal, Argentina and Brazil … Mr Schaechter believes they were not released at the end of the war because it would have been too embarrassing.

"The last thing De Gaulle wanted, when he was trying to build up France's image as victor and hero," he said, "was to reveal the true extent of its collaboration by freeing neutral and allied internees held in French camps by French guards."

The papers also show that officials continued to deport inmates of all nationalities to a near-certain death in Germany even as France was being liberated.

A neat register shows that, in March 1944, Noé contained inmates of 25 nationalities, including three Americans and 13 Britons aged between 21 and 55, and one other Briton aged over 55.

On June 24 1944, two weeks after the allies landed on the beaches of Normandy, the camp commandant wrote to the Toulouse prefecture. "I have the honour to inform you," he said, "that on the 22nd of this month nine British citizens were transferred to this camp." … On June 26 the commandant informed the prefecture that he had four American "guests" …

Some of these Britons and Americans "regrouped" in Noé on the eve of the liberation were wealthy residents of the Côte d'Azur … Others … were farmers or agricultural labourers.

Many, without doubt, were on the last transport of aliens to leave Noé-Longages station on July 30 1944. This "transfer" is referred to in a telegram from the camp commandant on August 28 — two days after a million cheering French men and women thronged the Champs-Elysées in Paris for Charles de Gaulle's victory parade. Mr Schaechter believes most of them ended up in Dachau; [Moore Sumner Kirby, born in Wilkes-Barre, Pennsylvania in 1895,] is known to have died in the Leau concentration camp near Bernberg, Germany, on April 7 1945.

But what happened to those, many elderly and infirm, who stayed? Some are marked "transferred". Others were moved in 1947 to Pithiviers or Rivesaltes camps, both officially closed. Some are marked: "Agreed with Mr Casse — to be lost". And what that means, no one knows.

(Danke schön, Pitiricus und Herr Schreiber)

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