UO prof sees WWII refugee camp as forerunner to U.S. camps

Barbed wire and American flag at detention camp

Detention centers at the U.S.-Mexico border have been compared to Nazi concentration camps, but a UO professor believes a WWII internment camp in France is a more fitting comparison and has made it  the focus of her new research project.

Romance language professor Gina Herrmann is working on a book-length project about Camp de Rivesaltes, an internment camp in Vichy, France, which first opened to house refugees from Francisco Franco’s fascist regime in Spain during the 1940s and subjected these refugees to harsh living conditions, including widespread disease, insufficient food, winter elements and sandstorms. The French regarded the Spanish as a racially inferior group and did not grant these refugees humane treatment.

The camp continued to operate until 1985, and over the six decades it was open it functioned as everything from an internment and refugee camp, a concentration camp, a military camp, a POW camp and a detention center for illegal migrants.

“The history of Rivesaltes is the history of reclusion and forced displacement from the 20th into the 21st century,” Herrmann said. “Rivesaltes gives us insights into how the modern internment regime of unwanted migrants developed over time.”

Herrmann received support from the Martin Alexandersson Research Scholarship for Human Rights, UO President Michael Schill’s fellowship in humanistic study, and a Franklin research grant from the American Philosophical Society to fund her work on the project.

Herrmann is especially interested in how the many different ethnic and racial groups of internees and the North African and Senegalese guards at those facilities comprehended their experiences at the camp during the 1940s, as well as how they viewed the other groups at the camp. Those two research questions are the heart of the project.

Rivesaltes housed many different groups when it first opened. The camp started with political refugees fleeing Franco’s fascist regime, but it soon included Jews and Sinti-Roma, populations targeted for genocide by the Third Reich.

“Different groups of detainees inhabited the same space within the barbed wire but they faced wildly distinct fates,” Herrmann said.

She explains that while many Jews were sent from Rivesaltes to Nazi camps, and thus their near certain murder, thousands of Spanish refugees joined the French Resistance or were pushed into forced labor, only to be captured and deported to Nazi camps where the majority perished.

Herrmann is trying to uncover more information about how the groups interacted and what different perspectives existed between the many different ethnic groups within the camp. She will turn to materials like survivor writings, testimonials, accounts from relief workers and newspaper archives to conduct her research.

“I want to understand the full spectrum of the human experience at Rivesaltes,” she said.

She also wants to better understand how the North African and Senegalese guards at the facilities understood their work and how others viewed them. Over a million North African troops were engaged in the war, but they remain an understudied population in the history of Rivesaltes.

Herrmann said the guards were the subject of racist hatred as the “’dark others” and also had a reputation for being cruel and abusive guards, but little is known about how they subjectively viewed their role at the camp, their mission and the various populations they interacted with.

“In order to understand Rivesaltes as a proving-ground for refugee internment and a way station on the tracks to genocide, the camp’s system of surveillance and its guards merit similar exploration,” Herrmann said.

If the pandemic allows, Herrmann will travel to southern France to conduct some of her research on-site. She also hopes to collaborate with other research specialists on this material as she works on both a book and an online exhibit. 

By Emily Halnon, University Communications