Jeremy Harding writes:
The commune of Gurs in the foothills of the Pyrenees is famous for its internment camp, built by the French to house fugitives from Spain after the Republic fell to Franco in 1939. A succession of internees went through the camp before it closed on New Year’s Eve 1945. With the Spanish Republicans came International Brigade volunteers who couldn’t get home – Germans, Austrians, Poles. After the Nazi invasion in May 1940, the French began detaining ‘enemy aliens’: anyone of German (or Austrian or Sudeten) origin, including refugees from the Nazis, was suspect. The drafts of ‘undesirables’ in the summer of 1940 included nearly ten thousand women, hundreds with young children. Several were well known: Hannah Arendt; Dora Benjamin, Walter’s sister; Marta Feuchtwanger, wife of Lion; the actress Dita Parlö, whose character falls in love with Jean Gabin’s in La Grande Illusion; Lisa Fittko, a passeuse who risked her life guiding scores of refugees out of France across the Pyrenees – among them Walter Benjamin – before leaving by the same route. Several artists produced memorial sketches and artefacts, a practice begun by Spanish Republicans.