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From My Bookshelf: The Curse of Gurs, by Werner L. Frank

Last weekend, I journeyed to Columbus, Ohio, for a family Bat Mitzvah. There, I had the pleasure of spending time with Werner Frank, whose astounding genealogical research includes some of my own family history (on my dad’s side).

Werner, who emigrated from Germany as a child in 1937, has recently published a book focusing on a specific strand of this research: the story of the October 1940 deportation of Jews from the Baden region of Germany to Gurs, an internment camp in France. From Gurs, many of these Jews were eventually deported to Auschwitz. This helps explain the book’s full title: The Curse of Gurs: Way Station to Auschwitz.

The story is particularly painful because so many of Werner’s relatives were among these Baden Jews (as were some of mine). Moreover, Werner remains acutely aware of his good fortune in having left Baden before 1940 – a realization that I similarly share concerning my grandparents, who were also Baden-born.

I purchased a Kindle copy of Werner’s book while we were in Columbus; Werner was kind enough to then gift me with a print copy. As an historian, I was wowed from the outset by Dr. Michael Berenbaum‘s introduction:

Frank does three things remarkably well. He explores the towns of the Baden regions where Jews had lives for centuries, often in the same house, generation after generation, and describes the institutions of these towns, their synagogues and community life, their leaders and rabbis. He also conveys the narrative of the Jews who were deported, name-by-name, family-by-family. A genealogist through [and] through, he knows how to research community records and documents, and to create family trees. Because of this work, he depicts the extended members of his ancestors and their descendants in a network of relationships to the Frank family. It is a significant achievement.

Yet above all, he has entered the inner courtyard of Gurs and portrayed a sense of life in the camp, the spiritual life of German Jews who were exiled to a French internment camp where they were detained in horrific conditions until their fate was decided. He brings forth to the reader documents and letters, telegrams and artifacts, pictures and images, all of which enable us to enter with him into the camp’s brutal gates.

This book is not for everyone. But it’s a book that I, for one, am grateful for.

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  1. My mother and father were prisoners in Camp Gurs. In April, 1942, my sister was born there. I have pictures of my mother and sister in addition to others who were there. I would like to contact Werner Frank and possibly send him these pictures. Can you please have him contact me. I would appreciate any assistance.

    Monique Strauss

    • Monique, thank you so much for the comment. I will alert Werner to your request.

    • hallo,
      aus meiner familie sind auch einige nicht mehr aus gurs zurückgekommen.
      ziemlich targisch war es für die cousins meines vaters die ihren vater schon sehr früh als kinder verloren haben,danach mit ihrer tante nach amerika emmigrieren mußten und dann auch noch ihre mutter sophie im lager von gurs verloren haben.
      auch dem onkel meines vaters hat man 5 jahre lang ganz schlimm mitgespiel.wenn man heute die akten vor augen hat und liest was ihnen in diesen jahren wiederfahren ist wird man schon sehr betroffen.auch meinem großvater hat man sehr übel mitgespielt.erzählt wurde jedoch in meiner familie nie etwas davon.niemand wollte davon berichten-sich damit beschäftigen oder sich daran erinnern.
      mit den besten grüßen
      h.geismar

  2. Erika, I had visited Gurs in 2010 in commemoration of life and death of my relative deported from Baden-Baden. I’ve easily found his grave and probably I was the first and only relative who visited this site. Very sad place, indeed…… But at least you know exactly the place where your relative RIP. My respect to the cities in post-war Baden area for care and memories of their killed neigbours is enourmous…..

  3. My mother’s, Ruth Dreyfuss, were deported to Gurs also after Risvaltes, there my grandfather was shot and killed. My grandmeother together with her sister were deported to auschwitz in 1942.
    My mother was able to escape with the help of Quaker nuns and then passed the border to Switzerland.
    I am looking forward toread this book.

    David Neustaedter
    Israel

  4. I spent several months in camp de Gurs, with my mother, younger brother and sister. We were ‘let out’ from Gurs on very short notice in mid-1942 at 4AM (herded into a cattle car), took the train to Les Milles camp (near Nîmes) where my father was interned, picked him up from that camp and returned to Nice, from where we had originally been sent to the two camps. A few days after we returned to Nice, we set out for Switzerland, where we stayed for the next five years. (It’s a long, tortuous and complicated story, but fortunately it had a good ending.)

    While my mother and my siblings were interned at Gurs in one ilôt, I was housed in another, ilôt M, which was for the exclusive interment of gypsy women – and me. I was alone amongst them, but after an initial period of fear that I would be stolen by the gypsies, I became friendly with them, and they with me. After all, everybody knew that gypsies ‘stole children’.

    I don’t believe that much – or anything – has been written about the gypsies in Gurs. Do you know of any book or article that describes what happened to the gypsies there? I believe ilôt M housed 2,000 of them.

    Thanks,
    gs

    • Dear George:

      Thank you so much for sharing your experience here. I do not know the answer to your question about the gypsies in Gurs, but I’ve alerted Werner to your comment and question, and I’m sure that if he has anything to add, he will be in touch with us.

      Again, thank you.

      Best,
      Erika

    • Dear George Schwarz,

      Erika Dreifus was kind in making me aware of your communication regarding internment in Camp de Gurs. Your comments are new to me, not having heard of Gypsies in Gurs and for that matter the makeup of Ilot M.

      My aunt Martha Levi was confined in Ilot M at the outset of her detainment and subsequently was transferred to Ilot J. I understood that Ilot M was for women. By the nature of your name George, I would conclude that you are male? If so, I am confused by your presence there since the sexes were separated.

      Sorry that I can not be of further help.

      Werner Frank

  5. I found this site while I was looking for some kind of list of non-internee visitors to Gurs during the time my family were there. No luck there, but I only looked today. There’s the intriguing fact that my paternal grandparents were in Europe at just the time of the deportation, heading back to the US in January 1941. Though by all accounts they were very anti-Semitic, I wonder if they had something to do with my mother being able to leave Gurs when she did.

    My mother, Trudl Besag, her sisters, mother and grandmother were all in the October deportation to Gurs. My mother was able to leave the camp in 1941, traveled to Marseille, thence to Lisbon. She traveled to New York on the Excambion in November 1941, meeting my American father (her fiancé) there and getting married 3 days later. The rest of the family, whose history I know a lot more about, escaped the camp in July 1942, 2 weeks before it was emptied and sent to the eastern death camps. The Huegenot of the village of Le Chambon sur Lignon and surrounding areas helped them get the false papers they needed to get to Switzerland. Their message to my family was: “in former times we were the ones persecuted. It is our duty to help you now.” Only my Aunt Idl Besag was picked up, sent to Drancy, and then on the transport toward Auschwitz. She never arrived there as far as we know, which is perhaps a blessing. The others, including my then-76-year-old great grandmother, hiked over the mountains to Switzerland and freedom. My Aunt Hilde, the only one to return to Germany after the war, and the only remaining family member from that generation, still lives in the family home “Haus Besag” in Baden-Baden.

    Among the passengers on the Excambion were David ben Gurion, future first prime minister of Israel and Edward R Murrow, the CBS News journalist. I don’t know if my mother met them, but with 10 days travel and fewer than 200 passengers, it’s probably likely.

    With a name like “Besag” (German transliteration of the Hebrew “pesach”) it was not easy to hide the Jewish background, even though practicing evangelical Christians. The genealogy goes back to several rabbis in the 17th and 18th centuries.

    This seems like a book I have to get once I have some time to read it. Another one on my bucket list is the 2-volume book of Documents Concerning the Deportation of Jews from Baden and Pfalz (approximate translation from the German) by Peter Sauer. I first came across that at the Family History Library in Salt Lake City back in the 1980s. I remember seeing a letter written by a lady just after arriving; she lamented the loss of her beloved Black Forest mountains and the dismal desolate appearance of Gurs. I made a copy, and then did an on-the-fly translation to my wife while we had lunch. I cried so hard, because I realized she was writing what I knew my mother must have felt at the same time.

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