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WW2 'Nomad Internment' exhibition warns against institutionalised discrimination

media Detainees, Montreuil-Bellay camp, Maine-et-Loire region, 3 September 1943. Denise Doly, Franciscan Mary Missionaries/Jacques Sigot Coll.

The Shoah Memorial in Paris is exhibiting the French government's discriminatory treatment of "travellers" or "nomads" from the late 19th century up until 1946. The historical, political and social context is explained in photos, maps and words.

From October 1940 to May 1946, more than 6,500 people, mostly French, were interned in more than 30 camps for "nomads", across France.

Officials began placing them in camps soon after the German occupation of France (June 1940 until liberation in August 1944). The camps were located both in occupied and so-called "Free France", under the Marshal Pétain, based in Vichy.

"Nomads" was the French government's official term for mostly Romani or Sinti people, travellers, with no fixed abode, originally from eastern or central Europe – and even earlier from the Indian sub-continent – but often born in France.

History catches up with today

In October 2016, then French President François Hollande acknowledged the responsability of the French Republic in what are remembered as dark times under German occupation, and even following it.

Theophile Leroy, one of the curators of the exhibition, points out that the internment of nomads during the war was a German initiative. "It was carried out and managed by the French authorities." Unlike in other countries, Leroy notes that these people were not deported en masse from France.

President Hollande's speech was seen as a sign that it was time for the Shoah Memorial to hold an exhibition that shed a broad and detailed light on French Nomads policy from 1939 to 1946. The Memorial's historians point out that this policy was markedly different from Germany's, but it remains a black stain on the history of France – often been referred to as a standard-bearer for human rights.

That black mark is older than World War Two and "dates back to the beginning of the 20th century, more than 100 years ago," explains Leroy.

As early as 1895, in fact, the government set out to monitor nomads, by carrying out a census which included all types of so-called "Bohemians". In 1912, the French government passed a law which established an identity card. It contained fingerprints and other anthropometric data, like body measurements and racial descriptions. It was issued to all nomads over the age of 13.

Of course, with the fast and forcefully rising fascist tensions in Germany and Central and Eastern Europe, more people headed across the French border.

A gate to hell

The first level of the exhibition, with all sorts of archival material, shows the early decisions that encouraged the stigmatisation of the nomadic people and reinforced the national cohesion of the French police force. The second level shows the social organisation in the camps.

In between the two, on the staircase wall, is an imposing wooden doorway complete with door and doorposts. It has seen some use, and looks like it was part of some ancient army barracks or barn. It is in fact a door from one of the internment camps, a chilling reminder of the treatment of "stranger".

Inside the camps

Entire families of Romani, elders and children included, were interned together. This may have been reassuring but it meant the chances of being set free were slim. With no-one on the outside to vouch for them, they were largely stuck.

"In 1943, the French authorities, for economic reasons, were more keen to free some detainees. Some of them worked the fairgrounds for example and had been interned, were set free," says Leroy.

A memorial to all victims of genocide
Late former French health minister, Simone Veil, who survived a WW2 concentration camp as a teenager and young woman, said at a 2010 award ceremony in Berlin, at the European Civil Rights for Sinti and Roma, "Parallels have often been drawn between the Jewish community and the Sinti and Roma communities. If only because it was their fate to be stigmatised, excluded from society, for thousands of years up until the Nazi ideology that made a distinction between the Aryan race and all others it considered as 'inferior' , including the Jews and the Tsziganes."

In the same vain, Leroy explains that "this exhibition shows the involvement of the French authorities and police, the collaboration of the administration in this period. Last year the exhibition was about the Herero and Nama genocide [in South West German Africa 1904-1906]; three years ago about the Armenian genocide. The Shoah Memorial uses its space and archives to make known the history of all genocides, of all persecution."

The exhibition L'internement des nomades, une histoire française (1940-1946) runs until 17 March 2019.

Photo du film Liberté de Tony Gatlif 2009 Tony Gatlif

The Memorial has drawn up a cultural programme of talks including with Henriette Théodore, born in 1932, who was interned as a child with her family for four years, as well as films including Tony Gatlif's Liberté (2009), known in Romani as Korkoro.

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