Montreuil-Bellay, a village of 4.000 inhabitants located in the northwest of France, hosted from 1941 to 1946 one of the 30 French concentration camps gathering Roma people. This camp has been completely destroyed after the 2nd world war and its existence as such was only recognized at the end of the 1980’s. Indeed the tragic history of that place has been overshadowed by both locals and historians who were never interested in camps created and run by the French authorities.
It is only through the hard work and the perseverance of Jacques Sigot (school teacher and historian specialized in Roma history) for more than 35 years, that the past could slowly resurface. Jacques Sigot published a first book about it in 1983 and step by step in cooperation with former internees and friends he succeeded in obtaining permission to set up a commemorative stone (the first one in France remembering Roma victims). They had however to finance it themselves.
Considered as the most important “camp for Nomads” existing in France, between 3000/4000 Roma people stayed or transit through the camp of Montreuil-Bellay created to bring together “individuals without fixed residence, nomads, and having the Romani type”. In other words the prefect explicitly declared to intern all “Manouches, Gitans, Roma, Sinti or Yenish” having the French nationality or not.
In 1941 hundred of Roma families were transferred from several small camps to Montreuil-Bellay. The camp was maintained under constant surveillance of the French police and was surrounded by barbed wire. Cut off from the outside world, the camp was thought as a micro-society including a school, a chapel and a prison. Kept in wooden huts, internees had no activity. Even in winter months, most of the buildings were not heated. Head lice epidemics, diseases and starvation were part of the daily life. Many former internees described in their testimonies terrible conditions. Everything was missing. They didn’t even understand why they had to stay there (sometimes a long time after the end of the war!). During all the years the camp was operating, they weren’t given any clothes; women were obliged to cut up mattresses to cover their babies. In 1944 the camp has been bombarded by the Allies aware of the existence of a war materials factory for Germany. This made the life in the camp even worse.
And when finally they were freed, the horror continued. They were released without any help or food, without their horses and caravans that had been confiscated when they entered the camp.
The Montreuil-Bellay camp is doubly important because it was also a central point of resistance. The sub-director of the camp, Jean Renard, was an active member of the resistance network Buckmaster contributing amongst others in diversion of arms. Unfortunately he was denounced and arrested with many others in 1943 before being deported to Germany.
Every year since 1990 an official national ceremony is organized on the last Saturday of April in order to honor the Roma victims of the 2nd world war.
The camp is now classified as a historic monument and the association created by J. Sigot is trying to buy a part of the camp to make it a commemorative place with signs, photographs and historical explanations.