Camp des Milles isn’t exactly the image one has in mind of southern France. A former tile factory just minutes from the center of Aix-en-Provence, the complex was requisitioned by the French government during World War Two, first to house those suspected of fascist sympathies and later, after the fall of France, as a depot for the puppet Vichy regime to send the nation’s Jews on to Auschwitz.
A rail car stands just outside Camp des Milles, a reminder of what happened here.
With the sun shining on my face, even on a cold January afternoon, Camp des Milles stands in stark contrast to the day I spent here in Aix, a good day, a Jewish day.
Aix-en-Provence is known as the cultural hub of Provence, and for good reason. Home to many of the region’s best museums, restaurants, and shops, it attracts visitors from all over the world. My first stop was one of the iconic museums, the Hôtel de Caumont. This elegant 18th century mansion is currently hosting an incredible exhibition of the work of Marc Chagall. Chagall, possibly best known for his incredible stained glass windows in Jerusalem’s Hadassah Medical Center, drew much of his inspiration from the Torah and, somewhat to my surprise here in mainly Catholic France, many of his “Jewish” works were included.
I love the Jewish aspects of Chagall’s works!
Art critic Robert Hughes once called Chagall, a Holocaust survivor originally from Belarus though he called France his home for most of his life, “the quintessential Jewish artist of the twentieth century.” And while certainly much of his work is not Jewish in nature, he never shied away from that aspect of his identity. As a traveler here in southern France, I was warned not to be “outwardly Jewish” in the face of rising anti-Semitism. I wander through the rooms of the exhibition and smile. A voice from the past is telling me that being visibly Jewish is not only acceptable, but magnificent.
The hardest part of visiting a place like Aix is deciding where to eat lunch. I check TripAdvisor and decide that after such a wonderful experience with Mr. Chagall, falafel is in the cards, and Tita is the top rated restaurant (of any sort) in the city. It is small, and I am the first customer there, having arrived about three minutes after its 11:45 am opening. I am greeted in French, but the owner, having deduced by my terrible accent that I am a foreigner, switched to English, and I immediately know that this isn’t just a Frenchman. “M’eyfo ata?” I ask. “Where are you from?” The response is immediate. “Tel Aviv,” he replies.
My smile could have lit the entire restaurant. It was besheret, meant to be. Having spent the morning with my favorite Jewish artist and knowing that Camp des Milles was on the afternoon docket, I had walked into an authentic Israeli falafel joint, possibly the only one in France. I order a falafel pita, and the owners engage me in conversation, interrupted only to bring me a plate of hummus that they insist I try.
Falafel at Tita
Tita began life as a food truck and has been a brick and mortar restaurant for only three months. When they first came here to Aix-en-Provence, they were worried about anti-Semitism, and wondered if they should call their food Lebanese or Middle Eastern. Their pride in their homeland won out, however, and they listed Israeli from the get-go. “People here in Aix love Israel,” they tell me. “We have never encountered negativity.” The falafel is amazing, but the experience is perfect.
Camp des Milles is harder for me. I have never visited a concentration camp before, and while Jews weren’t murdered here, these were my people sent to die for the simple act of being born as I was: Jewish. A visit here takes about two hours, and winds its way through a museum, then the camp itself, and finally to an exhibit about standing up to hate. I tear up reading about the people sent here, break down entirely seeing “dorms” created out of unused kilns of the tile factory, and marvel at the ability of those in the darkest places still finding a way to hope as I pass paintings on the walls and the homemade theatre, also in a kiln.
Most of the inmates here slept on the open floors in the attic of the factory.
Overall, more than 2,000 Jews were sent on to Auschwitz from here, perhaps a drop in the bucket even for France’s 77,000 Jews murdered in the Holocaust, but important nonetheless. France has never wanted to admit any part in the atrocities, and it was a challenge even to get Camp des Milles opened as a memorial. Only in 2012 did the effort succeed. Today, buses of schoolchildren come here to learn the meaning of “never again,” and struggle with how best to put the lessons of the Holocaust into practice in today’s world.
The exhibit at the end helps. It focuses on ways to fight back against hatred, not only of Jews but of any group. Using examples of those who risked their lives for Jews, as well as Armenians during that genocide and Tutsis of the Rwandan genocide, visitors to Camp des Milles leave with the knowledge that resistance is possible, and that goodness can exist even in the darkest times. Henri Manen was pastor of the Protestant community of Aix-en-Provence during World War Two. Allowed access to the camp to minister to its Protestant prisoners, he arranged for fake baptismal records for a number of Jews. He and his wife Alice helped seventy-two children and eight adults escape deportation to Auschwitz, hiding many of them in their own home. His story, along with dozens of others, is on the last wall of a visit to Camp des Milles.
Camp des Milles seen through the bars surrounding it.
When I came to southern France, I never expected to have a meaningful Jewish experience here. Instead, I had a day filled with them. Here in the shadow of a French concentration camp I found joy and hope in my Judaism.
Note: thank you to the Office de Tourisme d’Aix-en-Provence for sponsoring my visit to Camp des Milles, and for making sure visitors know about such and incredibly powerful site.
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