When, in May 1940, the Germans invaded France, thousands of immigrants who held German citizenship or were of German descent were concentrated in the “Winter Stadium” (Vel' d’Hiv) in Paris. These immigrants were considered enemy aliens. Among those detained were thousands of Jewish men, as well as Jewish women who had no children. The detainees were deported to the Gurs concentration camp near the French-Spanish border.
After the anti-Jewish legislation of October 1940, the Vichy regime broadened its actions to arrest and detain Jews in its territory. They were incarcerated in 15 concentration camps which included the camps of Gurs, Le Milles, Rivesaltes and St. Cyprien. By the beginning of 1941 some 40,000 Jews had already been arrested. In addition to those arrested, some 35,000 Jewish men were conscripted by force into the “Labor Corps”, or Compagnies de Travail. Almost all the foreign Jewish men, more than a third of the population of foreign Jews in France, were either conscripted into the Labor Corps or incarcerated in concentration camps.
The concentration camps provided only meager nutrition and faulty sanitary facilities. The prisoners had no possibility of appealing their internment or of trying to alleviate their conditions. The food provided was not enough to sustain even a bare minimum of existence. Hundreds of prisoners died due to disease, cold and starvation; thousands of prisoners reached a state of malnourishment.
Dozens of Jewish and Christian aid organizations, both French and international, tried to infiltrate the camps in order to aid the prisoners, primarily by supplying them with food and care for the children. These organizations succeeded in smuggling children out of the concentration camps and transferring them to orphanages which were under their control, to Christian foster homes and abroad.
During the period of German occupation 26 concentration camps operated in the Occupied Zone. The central concentration camp in France was Drancy, not far from Paris. Following the German occupation in 1940, Drancy was initially used as a camp for French and British prisoners of war. Beginning in the summer of 1941, when the roundup of Paris Jews began, Drancy was used to imprison Jewish detainees. From March 1942 Drancy became a transit camp for Jews who were being deported to the East.
In the vicinity of Paris and in Northeastern France there were additional concentration camps run by the Vichy regime. Among these were Pithiviers, Beaune-la-Rolande, Besançon, Compiègne and others. Of the 54,000 Jews who passed through the camp of Compiègne, 50,000 were deported to their extermination. The Jews who had been arrested in the big waves of arrests, in May 1941 and July 1942, were interned in Pithiviers. Just as in the case of Drancy and Compiègne, beginning in July 1942, thousands of Jews were deported from Pithiviers and Beaune-la-Rolande to Auschwitz.
The concentration camps in France continued operating during the summer of 1944, which marked the height of the battle for Paris and the Allied campaign to liberate France.