This page contains information taken from chapter 9 of Katherine Lack's book - FRONTSTALAG 142 - The Internment Diary of an English Lady by KATHERINE LACK.
Warning: This information is very upsetting, as it relates to the treatment of people coming through Vittel Internment Camp on the way to other camps further east....
When the Vittel camp was finally liberated by the allies in September 1944, it was suggested in some quarters that it had been a ‘model camp’, deliberately organised and advertised as propaganda to cover the atrocities in the concentration camps. Whether this had been the intention from the beginning, or whether the initial concern had merely been to demonstrate that the British women were now being held in good conditions, is a moot point. But certainly the types of people held at Vittel changed as the war progressed, and their destinations when they left the camp became more sinister.
At the time of Aunt Fan’s release in December 1941, the camp was still largely for women with British papers, although there were also a significant number of children and some elderly men held there. Even then, Aunt Fan referred to the Grand Hotel as a ‘whited sepulchre’ – beautiful on the outside but rotten within.
Soon, other groups of prisoners arrived at Vittel. There was a new policy of reuniting families; men were brought from their all-male camps to join their wives and children. A small group of Soviet women appeared, and as they were not eligible for Red Cross parcels because Russia had not signed the Geneva Convention, some of the longer-established internees set up a regular collection of food for them to supplement their rations. From October 1942, Americans and dual-nationality Anglo-Americans began to arrive, and they were accommodated in the Central Hotel, on the opposite side of the perimeter road, with their own access route to the park.
In 1943, there was a fundamental change. Internees were now arriving from all over Europe, but many of them were from Poland, and an increasing numbers were Jews. One group of traumatised people came from Warsaw, and they were held in hotels over the road, near the Americans. Although they were allowed access to the park during the day by means of a specially built and guarded footbridge, they returned to their own quarters at night. These people already knew what was happening in the extermination camps and gradually, as they came to trust some of the British internees, their terrible experiences of the Ghetto and their fears for the future began to be told. In December 1943, in yet another new development, the Vittel camp authorities started investigating which of the internees with British papers were of Jewish descent.
Vittel now served two quite distinct purposes: it was a civilian camp for British and a few American internees, most of whom were painfully aware of the Germans’ unhealthy interest in the Jews, and it was a holding bay for people being processed before being sent east. Those of the original internees who saw this most clearly tried desperately to make the outside world take action, but to no avail. For her efforts to save these people, Sofka Skipworth was eventually honoured with the title ‘Righteous Among The Gentiles’.
Only a very few of the Jews held at Vittel survived. A baby was smuggled out through the wire one night and cared for in the town. A young man was hidden in a room in the Grand Hotel (coincidentally, the one next to that in which Aunt Fan had previously lived) and only emerged when the camp was liberated. One prisoner married a Christian internee, but the camp authorities refused to accept it, so marriages of convenience offered no hope.
The first transports of prisoners from Vittel seem to have been of a group of women and children from North Africa, who were taken to Bergen-Belsen. A group of survivors of the Warsaw Ghetto who had hoped to be allowed to travel to South America were told that their papers were not in order and they were arrested and interrogated. On 17 April 1944, local workmen brought word to the camp that a train with sealed windows was waiting at the railway station. Over the next 24 hours, several of the Polish Jews attempted to commit suicide, but few succeeded; however critically injured, most of the these desperate people were forced to wait for their fate with the others. One internee remembered for years afterwards the sickening thud when a woman flung herself down a stairwell; other people jumped from upstairs windows. April 18th marked the first of several deportations from Vittel to Auschwitz.
These events had a traumatic effect on those trying to help. Sister Mc Gauley’s recollections stand for many:
‘Towards the end of June 1944 we heard that the bridge between the camp and the school villa had been closed ... Mothers came to the Little Sisters and begged them to adopt their children even though it meant never seeing them again. That night many children had their wrists slashed, took poison etc, in an attempt to end their lives. It was heartbreaking and it was at this point that I felt I couldn’t take any more.’
The final days of the Vittel camp were chaotic. In the face of the Allied advance and the increased activity of the local resistance movements, the Germans and their collaborators fled. Most were shot in cold blood in the surrounding fields. For ten days the camp was without officers or administration, until the town and its prisoners were liberated on 12 September by General Leclerc and the American army.