Voices from Drancy, one of France’s Most Important Holocaust Memorial Sites

(Last Updated On: August 19, 2020)
A symbolic cattle car is part of the memorial de la Shoah in Drancy, France, commemorating victims of the French internment camp during the Shoah. Courtney Traub/All rights reserved
A symbolic cattle car at the Memorial de la Shoah in Drancy, France, commemorating victims of the French internment camp during the Shoah. Courtney Traub/Free for general use

In March of 2020, I made a short trip from Paris that was a long time coming. I boarded a train, then a bus, to the quiet town of Drancy, located only nine kilometers northeast from the city center.

For years, I’d known about the former transit camp here that detained some 75,000 Jews between 1941 and 1944, deporting around 65,000 of them to Nazi concentration camps at Auschwitz-Birkenau, Bergen-Belsen, and elsewhere.

For years, I’d wondered why the site, and its unthinkably cruel history, has garnered relatively little attention– particularly in guidebook sections on French and Parisian Jewish history.

After all, this is a place that, unlike most Holocaust-related sites in France, remains intact.

Historic image of the Drancy internment camp in France, 1941. Bundesarchiv, Germany
Historic image of the Drancy internment camp in France, August 1941. Bundesarchiv, Germany

As Alix Quéré, the Education Director from the Mémorial de la Shoah, noted during my visit, you can still easily imagine the double barbed wire that once surrounded the austere buildings there.

You can still picture guards– both from the German Gestapo and the French gendarmerie (miliary police)– keeping thousands of frightened prisoners contained within the dreary complex.

They lived in squalor and misery, not knowing what fate awaited them as they watched convoy after convoy of prisoners leave. You’ll be sent to work in Germany, they were told.

And it was from Drancy that the vast majority of the 76,000 Jewish citizens and residents deported to death and work camps departed– some 85%. As such, it is a place of unspeakable suffering, and a painful reminder that France indeed collaborated with the Nazi “project” of dehumanizing and attempting to eradicate an entire group of people on religious and ethnic grounds.

{Related: The Pretty Paris Building With a Dark History of Nazi Collaboration}

In short, it’s a site that’s not only crucial to the memory of the atrocities suffered by Jews in France during World War II. It’s one of the most important Holocaust memorial sites in the world, and one of the best-preserved.

So why do so few, including tourists interested in World War II and Jewish history sites in France, have the Drancy Memorial on their radar?

A view of the Drancy site from the Mémorial de la Shoah, documentation center, in March 2020. Courtney Traub/Free for general use
A view of the Drancy site from the Mémorial de la Shoah, documentation center, in March 2020. Courtney Traub/Free for general use

I set out to learn more, and hopefully give Drancy more of the attention it deserves.

I spent a day at the stirring memorial that stands in front of the former internment camp, featuring pink granite sculptures from an artist who is himself a Holocaust survivor.

Alix Quéré, Education Director of the Mémorial de la Shoah at Drancy, offers in-depth details on the history of the site and the memorial. Courtney Traub/Free for general use
Alix Quéré, Education Director of the Mémorial de la Shoah at Drancy, offers in-depth details on the history of the site and the memorial. Courtney Traub/Free for general use

I saw the symbolic cattle car that stands at the end of a figurative rail track leading from the main memorial statue. It commemorates the men, women, and children who were forcefully crowded into cars designed for animals. Drancy’s deportees were, of course, not considered human under Nazi ideology.

Beside the track and cattle car, a plaque from 1993 commemorates the victims, who mostly perished at Auschwitz and elsewhere.

Plaque at the Drancy camp in France, a Holocaust memorial site nine kilometers from central Paris.
Plaque at the main memorial site at Drancy. Courtney Traub/Free for general use.

It reads as follows:

Ici, L’Etat français de Vichy interna plusieurs milliers de juifs, tsiganes, et étrangers/Déportés vers les camps nazis. Presque tous y trouveront la mort. Nous, génération de la mémoire, n’oubliérons jamais.

(Here, the French state at Vichy detained several thousands of Jews, Tsiganes (Roma people), and foreigners/Deported to Nazi camps. Almost all would die there. We, generation of memory, will never forget.)

What makes this plaque remarkable is that it recognizes the partial responsibility of the French state– at the time run by the collaborationist government of the Marshall Philippe Pétain at Vichy— where France had generally denied its role in the atrocities.

While it’s true that many did participate in resisting the Nazi occupation, the myth of a dominant French Resistance movement during World War II had been propagated by figures like Charles de Gaulle, who viewed Vichy as an aberrant departure from the “true” France.

It was only in 1995 that a major government figure (the late President Jacques Chirac) publicly acknowledged France’s co-responsibility in the inhuman events of World War II, including the persecution of Jewish citizens and residents.

My day at the memorial site continued with a visit to the documentation center, which holds thousands of artefacts and archival items relating to the transit camp at its victims.

It was only once I was home, a month later, that I conducted telephone interviews with two French survivors of the Drancy camp. Deported to Auschwitz-Birkenau and Bergen-Belsen, respectively, their stories deeply moved and troubled me.

Read the full story, including my interviews with Drancy survivors

A slideshow at the Drancy Memorial documentation cente outside Paris pays hommage to the victims of the French transit camp, including many children.
A slideshow at the Drancy Memorial documentation center pays hommage to the victims of the transit camp, including many children.

If you’re interested in learning more about the history of the site and hearing crucial voices from two survivors, read the full piece here (at Medium).

It seemed absolutely crucial to me to include their stories and voices in my full account of Drancy, particularly since so few survivors remain alive to offer their testimony.

My conversations with them were nothing short of mind-altering, touching, and devastating. Yet both current-day Paris residents are inspiring and living examples of endurance, determination, and the embrace of life over cruelty and death.

If you enjoy this post or the longer version of it, please share with others. My hope is that these stories contribute, in some small way, to ensuring that we never forget the inhumanity and horrors of the Holocaust– not least because genocides and ethnic cleansing remain terrible realities in the present day.

In remembering history and listening to those who survived its most unthinkable events, we see current atrocities more clearly– exposing them to the light of day.

Getting There & Practical Information: Mémorial de la Shoah at Drancy

The memorial and documentation center exhibits are free for all, year-round, and audioguides are available in English and French.

Getting There: You can reach the site by metro and bus from central Paris (Metro Line 5 to the Bobigny-Pablo Picasso station, then take bus #251 to the 19 mars 1962 stop).

Alternatively, free shuttles from central Paris depart every Sunday at 2:00 pm from the Paris Shoah Memorial at 17 rue Geoffroy-L’Asnier (Metro Saint-Paul). It returns at 5:00 pm. Seats are subject to availability; arrive early to avoid disappointment.

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Why to visit the Drancy Holocaust memorial site in France- Paris Unlocked

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