Established: summer 1941
Location: north-east suburb of Paris
Drancy was the most important transit camp for Jews captured on unoccupied French territory (the area administered by the Vichy regime), as becomes clear from the numbers of people it processed: in less than four years, 70,000 Jews of many different nationalities passed through Drancy, of whom 67,000 were deported, mainly to Auschwitz (amongst these were 109 Italians). The total number of Jews deported from the whole of France was around 80,000.
Located on the edge of Paris, the camp was built in a huge residential area, a low-cost housing zone known as the “cite de la Muette” (the Silent City), which was still being built in 1939. Its main section, which still exists today, was a U-shaped four-storey building 440 metres long. Access to the various sections and storeys was via 22 staircases (some of the apartments on some storeys had not yet been finished when war broke out). The two sides of the building overlooked a 40×200 metre courtyard, with access from what is now called Rue Jean Jaurès (today there is a commemorative pillar nearby). Other facilities were developed at Drancy during the course of its activity).
The whole area was surrounded by a triple fence of barbed-wire, with the usual control towers, and a main entrance protected by armed guards. The Drancy staff (dozens of French police, along with their families) were housed on the east edge of the camp in five separate buildings that were demolished after the war.
In the same year that the residential zone had been built, France (by now overwhelmed by fears of imminent war and a deepening xenophobia) decided to create collection centres for “foreign refugees” (mainly people who had fought in the Spanish Civil War, and German and Austrian exiles). The first of these collection centres was built in the Pyrenees (in January 1939), and was used to house Spanish Republicans. The official French policy was that each department (a French administrative area broadly similar to a sub-region) should have its own “collection centre for suspect foreigners”: in fact with the outbreak of war, the internees were placed in a small number of large camps, including Gurs, Le Vernet and Rivesaltes in the Pyrenees and Compiègne, Pithiviers, Beaune-la-Rolande and Drancy in northern France. Various categories of prisoners were created (“not suspect”, “suspect”, “undesirable stateless people”) along with various categories of camp: some were highly repressive, like Le Vernet, some less so like Gurs, and some were simply accommodation centres. These existing structures and the police mechanisms used to incarcerate thousands of exiles in them (some Italian, such as Leo Valiani) were immediately exploited by the Nazis from the moment they invaded France.
As regards Drancy, its initial use had been to house French Communists who had been declared outlaws by the Sérol decree of October 1939. In the summer and autumn of 1940, after the German invasion, Drancy was used to house French prisoners, Greek and Yugoslav civilians and British soldiers. By the spring and summer of 1941, the Nazis had decided to construct camps for Jews, both as collection centres and transit points (a task entrusted to Gestapo Section IV J). Thus Drancy was used as a collection point for Jews – the first collection took place on 20 August 1941, when 4,000 foreign and French Jews were forcibly rounded-up in the 11th district of Paris and sent to Drancy.
Drancy under French administration (August 1941-June 1943)
The first phase of the history of Drancy is marked by a clear division of the camp management, between the occupying German forces and the remaining French institutions. In effect, administration of the organisational, economic and surveillance aspects of the camp was carried out by the French police, gendarmes and Prefets, operating under Nazi supervision (specifically, SS-Hauptsturmführer Theodor Dannecker until July 1942, and then SS-Obersturmfurher Heinz Roethke until June 1943). In this “division of labour”, the Nazis were responsible for the overall management of the process and decisions on individual operations (such as mass arrests), which were then carried out by the French police and gendarmes, who were responsible for delivering prisoners to the camps and supervising them. The Prefet was responsible for aspects such as the physical accommodation of prisoners, cleaning and supplies.
In fact, the first year of operations at Drancy was marked by disastrous conditions, with prisoners dying of hunger and illness, as many witnesses later recalled:
– “You start to feel the hunger. The kitchens do not produce enough soup for everyone. In the rooms, the empty stomachs no longer resist, and fights break out because one person received, both at lunch and dinner, three pieces of turnip more than someone else. The kitchens are kept under watch by the gendarmes. In the dustbins, people dive in to collect any peels they can find mixed in with the rubbish and the ash.”
– “It is finally allowed to receive food parcels, but first the gendarmes go through them, confiscating all sorts of foodstuffs, cigarettes and medical treatments. It is the punishment of Tantalus for the prisoners, who have to watch while the gendarmes remove items and eat and smoke instead of them”.
– “The representatives of the Prefet of Senna…. hide behind the orders of Dannecker…”
In the same year, in order to ease the pressure created by the number of prisoners and the disorganised management, the gendarmes began to encourage the creation of various types of internal organisations capable of organising matters within the camps, and created an internal hierarchy from amongst the prisoners of officers and sub-officers (head of room, head of staircase, head of block, “general head of block”); at the other end of the spectrum, arrangements were also made, apart for cleaning responsibilities, for the accommodation of the most seriously ill prisoners outside the camp, and the release of specific categories of prisoner (children for instance). But such “relaxations” of the harshness of the camp simply masked its ultimate purpose: in November, 800 ill and young prisoners were released, and in December, 300 would be sent to Compiègne, from where they left for Auschwitz in the first French deportation (27 March 1942). On 14 December, 44 French and foreign Jews (mainly Poles and Soviets) would be taken to Paris to be shot at Mont-Valérien, long with 100 Communist hostages killed the next day.
1942 was the year when the camp functioned much more systematically. As in other transit camps (such as Fossoli, in the case of Italy), continual phases of prisoner round-up and deportation begin: still at the start of June 1942, a transport to Auschwitz was organised, via Compiègne, but by the middle of the month, the first of the many convoys that lasted until 1944 (the third involving French Jews) left direct from Drancy. On average, each transport involved around 1,000 people: at the end of June, after the departure of the transport from the station at Drancy-Le Bourget, the camp had been “depopulated”, having no more than 2,000 inmates (previously it had contained 3,000).
Drancy, ante-chamber to Auschwitz
The prisoner round-up and deportation cycle began with the methods already tested on 20 August 1941, with the haul of Jews living or hidden in the Paris area and other Vichy areas not under German occupation. Well prepared and organised in the necessary logistical aspects, the round-ups were carried out in the first instance by the French police, but as already noted, under German control and direction. The interaction between these forces, which also involved the Vichy authorities, was not without difficulties and arguments, often for instance about the lack of transport. This was the case for the round-up planned for the end of June 1942 (as per Dannecker’s overall plan for the “transfer” or “evacuation” of all French Jews, developed that same month). The plan envisaged the arrest of 22,000 people, to be divided between Drancy (6,000), Compiègne (6,000), Pithiviers (5,000) and Beaune-la-Rolande (5,000). The operation, nicknamed “Spring Wind” by the Paris police, had to be put back to the middle of July, but it was nonetheless not an improvised operation: already at the start of the month, the camp administration at Drancy had been advised of the imminent arrival of 3,000 new prisoners.
On 16/17 July 1942, the “Vel d’Hv” round-up occurred (named after the main collection point in Paris, the Vélodrôme d’Hiver). 13,000 foreign Jews, including 4,000 children, were rounded up and 6,000 were immediately despatched to Drancy. At the same time, command of Gestapo section IV J passed from Theo Dannecker to Heinz Roethke, who instigated a frenetic sequence of prisoner swaps between French camps, and of transports from these camps to the death camps in the East. In the second half of July, five convoys left Drancy direct for Auschwitz; other convoys left from other French camps, with the result that 4,000 children (whose parents had already been deported) were in turn sent to Drancy. Georges Wellers, witness and later historian of Auschwitz noted:
– “They were arranged 110-120 to a room, without beds, with disgustingly dirty straw mattresses laid out on the floor. On each landing, buckets for toiletary purposes had been provided, because the children were too small to go down the stairs by themselves to the toilets in the courtyards…. after nine in the evening, adults (except those with special authorisation) were not allowed to stay in the rooms… the children’s sleep was very disturbed, many shouted and called for their mothers, and sometimes, all the children in one room would start to shout at the same time, scared and desperate…”
These children were all deported between August and September of that year.
In the run-up to the other big Paris round-up, scheduled for February 1943, Drancy was emptied in order to make space for the new arrivals. 22 convoys left for Auschwitz between 10 August and 30 September 1942, and another four between 4 and 11 November 4. Another five left between February and March 1943, after which the flows of prisoners (both arrests and deportations) stopped until June.
The most recent historical studies have explained these interruptions on the basis of a lack of available rolling-stock, since much of the French state rolling-stock had already been transferred to the East. Nonetheless, in a document dated 8 July 1942, Dannecker anticipated that: “a convoy would leave every week from the four camps [Beaune-la-Rolande, Compiègne, Drancy, Pithiviers]… all in all, four convoys carrying 1,000 Jews each will leave the occupied zone for the East each week. Supervision will be supplied by the French gendarmerie, acting under German orders”. In any case, with the transport of 23 June 1943, total control of Drancy would be assumed by the Nazis.
During the period discussed above, a “Jewsh administration” was created inside the Drancy camp, which organised and delivered a series of services, starting with practical matters (such as cleaning, the kitchens, health services) and then proceeding to logical and administrative matters (the military office, an office that maintained card indexes etc: all of this was controlled and overseen by the Prefet police), and finally an internal security service. Running this system was the “Manager of the Administrative Office”, who the heads of staircases and heads of rooms answered to. This system would continue after the Nazis adopted direct administrative control of the camp. Thus an internal camp bureaucracy was created, and so also a group of privileged inmates, who tended to be able to avoid deportations, since they were broadly speaking essential to the smooth running of the camp.
Drancy under direct Nazi control (July 1943-August 1944)
Around 40,000 prisoners were deported from Drancy while it was under French administration, supervised by Theo Dannecker and Heinz Roethke. The “Final Solution” of the French Jews had sharply slowed after the first months of 1943, but at the start of the summer, SS-Hauptsturmführer Alois Brunner (who had been part of Eichmann’s office for forced Jewish emigration in Vienna, and was later responsible for the destruction of the Jewish community in Salonika) took over the reorganisation of the camp. The French officials from the Prefet of Senna and the Prefet police were removed from operations, and the Gendarmes were left only with the task of managing the camp perimeter.
The internal bureaucracy was overhauled, with the introduction of new roles and new privileges, so as to create an efficient and functioning management system that could assist with the systematic deportation of all the Jews, French or otherwise (previous deportations had operated on the basis of nationality, and French Jews had generally been spared), to the death camps. This efficient management was run on the basis of divisions and rivalries amonsgt the prisoners, in a world in which survival was only possible through avoiding deportation and hence by helping to deport the “other” prisoners; to this was now added a highly visible degree of violence:
– “After the arrival of Brunner, the physical violence began. The SS would beat women and old people…. it is forbidden to approach them. When you come across an SS officer, you must stand to attention. The SS regularly beat the prisoners: one of them constantly carries a type of wooden club with which he would hit all the prisoners who came within range…. they slapped the women, and threw stones at them… they would force the prisoners onto their hands and knees and then they would beat them… they would also hit the children. We were made to gather together to see these incidents…. pistol whipping, clubbing, leather straps used for sharpening blades, heavy stones gathered from the ground, all of these were used to hit, to injure, and to knock prisoners unconscious. And when standing to attention, every prisoner still had to demonstrate respect to their torturers”.
The camp now became a fully-fledged self-sufficient ghetto, with complex organisations and external “services”, including wood and metalworking facilities, a chemists, a dentist, a Chancellor’s office (the Kanzlei) that was run jointly with the Germans, a morgue, and various goods dumps. Work now became obligatory for all prisoners. The consequences of these changes are clear from the smoother and better organised running of the deportations, and above all in the fact that a reduced SS detachment was still able to effectively and completely control a camp housing many thousands of inmates. Brunners’ SS “team” in fact only consisted of six people beside himself. During the year that he ran the camp, 22 transports (equating to roughly 23,000 prisoners) were despatched from Drancy.
An important point to note is the creation of two poltical structures inside the camp, entrusted to the prisoners themselves, a Security detachment (known as the “Camp Police”) and the “Office for external missions”. This latter existed to force prisoners whose relatives were still in hiding to make contact with them, so as to help with their arrest or surrender, or “to assist with the reuniting of families” as it was officially termed. This office did not last long – it was primarily active in the summer of 1943 and according to calculations just for the month of August, it produced 570 “home visits” from 22 “missionaries”, resulting in 73 detentions.
It was particularly involved in the search for fugitive Jews in Southern France and around Nice, starting from September 1943 (when, after the departure of convoy 59 for Auschwitz – as numbered according to the overall list of transports from France – only around 600 people were still in Drancy). In Nice alone, a squad personally run by Brunner himself out of the Hôtel Excelsior managed to arrest more than 2,000 Jews in less than three months. Jews who had come from St.-Martin-Vésubie (and had sought refuge in Italy after 8 September) and who were now detained inside the transit camp at Borgo San Dalmazzo, near Cuneo, were sent to Drancy on the orders of Brunners’ SIPO/SD unit.
The last large transport for Auschwitz came at the end of July 1944. The round-up was particuarly aimed at Jewish orphans housed in faciliites run by the UGIF (the General Union of Jews in France, whose relationship with the occupying forces has been the subject of much controversy). In this way, 400 children were added to 900 adults scheduled for deportation. After this deportation (the 67th to leave Drancy and the 77th from the whole of France), there were only 800 prisoners left in Drancy, too small a number for a deportation (particularly as the Allies were fast approaching Paris). So Brunner arranged for 750 prisoners from the Austerlitz sub-camps at Bassano and Lévitan to be sent to Drancy, and scheduled the transport of the last 1,569 prisoners for 13 August – this would have signalled the end of the camp’s existence. But a transport strike in the Paris region scuppered the plan, as it proved impossible to round up the 30 train wagons needed.
Liberation of the camp (17 August 1944)
Faced with the imminent arrival of Allied troops, Brunner decided on the total evacuation of the camp, while simultaneously opening negotiations with the Red Cross and the Swedish consulate. As Brunner’s plan for the final deportation collapsed, the camp archive was destroyed on 16 August, but the staff responsible for the index-card system were able to hide the registers relating to deportations: these documents became the principal source of post-war information on transports from France. Although the train network restarted operations, by 17 August there was still not enough rolling stock to allow for a complete final deportaton to the East, so the Nazis left with 51 prisoners, the final transport of Jews from French territory. During the journey, twenty prisoners were able to escape from the trucks, and of the rest, fifteen would survive the war.
The camp was left in the hands of the Swedish consolate, who called in the help of the Red Cross and the UGIF: on the afternoon of 17 August, the prisoners tore off the Star of David they had been forced to wear on their clothes (while the members of the Camp Police did the same with their official armbands….)
Drancy had three sub-camps, or work commandoes, at its disposal, located in Paris: two of these (Austerlitz, near the train station of the same name, and Lévitan, near the Gare de l’Est) were occupied with the warehousing, sorting and distribution to Germany of goods stolen or requistioned from Jewsh prisoners, and were staffed by 500 and 200 prisoners respectively. The third camp, Bassano, used 50 prisoners to produce clothing for the German army. All the prisoners in the sub-camps were taken back to the main camp on 12 August 1944, as they were slated to form part of the final transport that ultimately never left Drancy, and so instead they were freed when the camp was liberated.
Using the card-indexes that escaped the destruction of Drancy’s archives, it is possible to produce some figures on the numbers of Jews deported from the camp. Bearing in mind that these figures have been rounded-out, the principal nationality of prisoners deported was French (22,800, of whom 7,000 were French by birth but born to non-French Jews). The next group was Polish Jews (14,500), Germans (6,200), Soviet Jews (3,200), Romanians (2,900) and Austrians (2,200). 1,500 Greek Jews were deported from the site, along with 1,200 Turkish Jews and 1,000 Hungarians. So-called “Stateless” Jews deported from Drancy numbered over 2,700, but in reality, these were Polish, Austrian and Czech Jews who had had their passports confiscated. Other nationalities are also represented in numbers less than 1,000 each, ranging from very small groups to 580 Dutch Jews. As already noted, 109 Italian Jews were deported from the camp. In over 4,000 cases, it has not been possble to determine the nationality of the prisoners.
In total, the number of Jews deported from Drancy, according to different calculations, ranges from a minimum of 67,073 to a maximum of 67.471, of whom the large majority died in the camps they were sent to.
Maurice Rajsfus Drancy. Un camp de concentration très ordinaire 1941-44, Paris, le cherche midi, 1996
Important witness information can be found in George Wellers L’Etoile jaune à l’heure de Vichy, Paris, Fayard, 1972
An overall picture of the transports is available in Serge Klarsfeld French Children of the Holocaust: A Memorial, New York University Press, 1996
(original Italian text by Lucio Monaco, English translation by C Dimarco)