Gurs was one of the largest camps in France and held various functions over the time of its existence.
In 1939, after discussions that sparked controversy among the region, it was first used as a detention centre for refugees fleeing Spain. Within six weeks, regional builders and engineers had constructed simple barracks within the compound located near the border. In April 1939, there were already more than 15,000 men, women and children being held there. From May 1940, there were also people who had fled Germany being interned in Gurs, having been declared “hostile foreigners.” At times there were almost 20,000 people within the overcrowded camp. The camp, initially under the French War Office, eventually fell under the control of the Interior Ministry of the Vichy regime.
This photograph of the Gurs camp was probably taken in 1942. Fully completed, it measured 79.6 hectares and was surrounded by barbed wire. Within the site were “small islands” (îlots) that included 25 to 30 barracks which were additionally fenced off. Men and women were housed separately.
At first, the barracks stood on tamped mud scattered with straw. Each barrack was far too cramped, housing 60 people. The whole compound was unpaved, meaning that the ground would become completely softened when it rained. In order to reach the toilets, the inmates were forced to wade through the mud. This woman is attempting to use a hoe to enlarge a drain.
Shortly after her arrival at Gurs, Herbert Lehmann’s mother wrote to him and described the conditions in the camp. As men and women were housed separately, she wrote that she only saw his father “every few days”. By this time, they only possessed 100 Reichsmarks and their clothes – they had no papers. In order to pass the censors, she described the size of the food rations by alluding to her son’s “ski trip (Davos-Dachau) two years ago”. Herbert Lehmann had been transported by the National Socialists to Dachau concentration camp in 1938. He emigrated after his release.
After France’s surrender on the 22nd of June 1940, the French camp command relaxed guard and detention regulations. A number of Gurs inmates were able to escape the camp or apply for release. Berlin artist, Charlotte Salomon, had fled to France in 1939 and was briefly imprisoned in Gurs. After her release, she was able to complete her picture cycle Life? Or Theatre? in Nice. In 1943, she was rearrested and deported first to Drancy and then to Auschwitz-Birkenau where she was murdered.