French Roma recall WWII internment

Amid wave of expulsions, Gypsies plan memorial at site of detention

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MONTREUIL-BELLAY, France | It’s a thistle-tangled field behind a hedge of blackberries, with little to catch the eye but three surreal staircases that rise out of the parched grass and lead to nowhere.

Not much is left of the camp where thousands of French Gypsies were interned in this village in the Saumur wine region during World War II. Here, hungry children once crowded behind barbed wire, hoping Sunday strollers might toss them leftover food. Anyone caught trying to escape was locked in a filthy hole underground, a prison within a prison.

As today’s France expels a wave of Romanian Gypsies seeking an escape from hardship back home, children of the camp’s survivors have been drawing up plans for a memorial to the site’s chilling past. They have been caught up in a battle against what they say is state-sponsored discrimination today against some of Europe’s most marginalized, misunderstood minorities.

This shameful episode of French history is little known and isn’t in the school textbooks: Under the Nazi occupation, thousands of Gypsies, mostly citizens of France, were rounded up and put in 31 internment camps administered and guarded by their fellow Frenchmen.

Perhaps most shocking in this country that considers itself the cradle of human rights is that France kept some Gypsies locked up until 1946, after the end of the Nazi occupation. Hitler’s troops were gone, Gen. Charles de Gaulle’s provisional government was in charge, and the French had only themselves to blame.

Montreuil-Bellay, the largest camp, was finally classified as a protected historic site in July, years after part of it was razed to build a traffic roundabout. Today, only the underground prison is still intact, with a bird’s nest and moss clinging to its stone ceiling. Cows graze among the ruins.

Questions are growing about the future of the site. A lawmaker brought it up to parliament recently, urging its restoration or a monument to the site’s history.

French Gypsy activist Milo Delage is working on plans for a memorial that he envisions as “something simple. A place for reflection.” He also says the lessons of the past are crucial now and that France today is experiencing “all the same ingredients” of the prewar years, including racism and discrimination.

Before President Nicolas Sarkozy went away on summer vacation in the Riviera, just weeks after Montreuil-Bellay won protected status, he called an unusual meeting: He wanted to discuss “behavior problems” within communities of Gypsies, those whose families have been in France for centuries and their distant cousins now arriving from Eastern Europe.

France’s traditional Gypsies refer to themselves as “tsiganes,” and many say they are being unfairly lumped together with the recent arrivals from Eastern Europe, referred to here as Roms, or Roma.

Mr. Sarkozy’s meeting was a response to riots that had broken out in central France in July after a policeman fatally shot a fleeing French Gypsy youth in circumstances still under investigation. Gypsies in the town of Saint-Aignan are said to have cut down trees, broke windows and burned cars.

Mr. Sarkozy’s meeting left many Gypsies feeling stigmatized, as if the government viewed them all as troublemakers. Then Mr. Sarkozy launched his widely criticized crackdown on the Roma, blaming them for rising crime and putting hundreds on planes home, mostly to Romania. He said their illegal camps were sources of “illicit trafficking, deeply disgraceful living conditions and the exploitation of children through begging, prostitution and delinquency.”

Such a targeted crackdown by the French president on any other minority would have been unthinkable. Officially, the French government is blind to color, ethnicity and religion and does not keep tabs on minorities.

Mr. Delage’s grandparents, father and three uncles were held for 18 months at Montreuil-Bellay during World War II. The betrayal was perhaps sharpest for his grandfather: He was a decorated veteran who had fought for France in the previous world war, losing a leg in battle.

In 1940, soon before the Nazi occupation, France’s then-President Albert Lebrun ordered Gypsies to stop traveling, saying their itinerant lifestyle made them a spying risk. Later that year, the Germans ordered French Gypsies into local internment camps.

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