Pilgrimage to Rivesaltes

— by Rabbi Goldie Milgram
The President of France, François Hollande, explained to his own citizens this week that: the roundup of thousands of Jews in Paris during World War II was a crime “committed in France, by France… Not one German soldier, not one was mobilized during this entire operation.” (JTA) It happens that this year my Hubbatzin Barry Bub and I visited Rivesaltes, the detention camp in France where my teacher, Rabbi Zalman Schachter-Shalomi (Reb Zalman), was imprisoned for a time during World War II. Many Vichy French policies and practices imitated those of the German Third Reich; they even sought to revive some imagined “French race.” Knowledge of this is being lost, studies show over 40% of French young adults are unaware that on July 16-17, 1942 the French police rounded up 13,000 Parisian Jews of all ages, they were held near the Eiffel Tower and then deported and murdered at Auschwitz. I dedicate this article to their memory.

Visiting Rivesaltes

Numerous Rivesaltes prisoners died of the work, treatment and residential conditions, including Jews, métèques (immigrants from North Africa), Tsingales (Roma/Gypsies), Freemasons, Communists, children, and others such as homosexuals and those mentally ill or disabled.

More after the jump.
Rivesaltes was also used to imprison Spanish freedom fighters. Between six and seven thousand exiles from Spain were murdered in the Mauthausen concentration camp. When the German occupation advanced, the Vichy government and its local workers ensured efficient transport of those held there to death camps, including a great many Jews. One of several clustered roadside Rivesaltes monuments reads: “Only the rare person survived.”

Reb Zalman essentially survived because it was confirmed that proper emigration papers were awaiting him. This year, upon hearing we’d be in France, he suggested a ritual be done in memory of the Spanish fighters. He recommended this be in the local river under an aqueduct where the Rivesaltes prison guards would sometimes let him wash. We did so this past fall, the impact has taken time to integrate, and in view of the 70th anniversary of “all this,” and the scenes of atrocities from the Middle East and beyond, it’s time to try again; to write this as it came to be, an affirmation of the Shmei Rabbah, the Great Name of which we speak when saying Kaddish.

Ironically, Rivesaltes is within the land of the original Kabbalists, not far from the charming walled city of Pezanne where “Ghetto” is honestly emblazoned above the small street sign Rue des Juifs (Jew Street). A municipal plaque explains that a mikveh was once located in the cul-de-sac where we stood and that “for their safety” the Jews were locked into the Ghetto each night.

A short drive and we are in beautiful Perpignan. Unabashed signage relates that monks supervised the lives of “converted Jews who lived in the houses on the square.” Fartiq, my mother would have said in Yiddish at this point, “nothing more” did the municipality signage offer by way of clarification.

The castles and walled towns of Southern France are fairytale-beautiful despite the horrors that occurred in every period within, around and beyond. Before arriving at Rivesaltes, we stayed with a friend, a Dutch Reform priest friend married to a woman who was a “hidden Jewish child” during the war. Their lovely walled, artist-filled, village of Minerva sits at the intersection of two gorges. The signage at the gorges? “On this spot” were numerous Cathars burned at the stake as part of the Catholic Church’s completely successful annihilation of a Christian variant in Southern France. The Cathar heresy? Dedication to living modestly, helping the poor, telling no lies… and not following orders of those differently inclined.

Reb Zalman asked us to create a memorial ritual for the young Spanish freedom fighters at the bridge or aqueduct “where they sometimes took us to wash.” It is unclear whether the camp itself can be found though a friend has given us directions taken from a book about all the internment camps. So we follow what we think is the correct river, seemingly forever; it is only a mud river bed in most places. No Rivesaltes Camp appears. But suddenly — there! A billboard for some nice-looking Rivesaltes Condos, how odd. We ask two men walking along the road for the bridge and the camp, they guide us to what they are sure is the spot.

“Non-non,” says an old man smoking on the embankment, he points to the highway, “nord — north.” Why, I ask him, were the young Spanish men interned and murdered en masse? He was quick to reply, and in decent English: “The Allies feared these young men would take down Franco’s government and institute socialism; Franco had put down the socialist revolution of 1934.”

Beyond Wine Country

Soon the lush terrain of wine country is no more. We move beyond the river, searching rotary after rotary (traffic circles) outside the town until, flanked by 16 wheelers heading to Spain, we reach a scorched barren arid plain with vast sharply peaked mountains beyond barely visible through roiling waves of heat. A camp — there! Flags flying.

A  young soldier with peach fuzz over his lip halts our entry with his inquiry:

“Mais non, ce n’est pas Rivesaltes. Ici, nous avons beaucoup de personnes indésirables. Il… nouveau camp; pas Rivesaltes. Les conditions sont très différentes ici…hmm …Rivesaltes, ma famille a travaillé à Rivesaltes  très longtemps –terrible. Je suis désolé mais c’est vrai, ils étaient employés par le camp.

Meaning: “This is not Rivesaltes. Here we have many undesirables (North African refugees (some call them infiltrators). Conditions are very different here … My family worked at Rivesaltes — it was terrible. I am sorry, but it’s true. They were employed by the camp.”

Truly Tilting

We continue through the rotaries to – is that – a – windmill farm? The huge installation as far as the eye can see looms higher than those we know in the states, and at its foot, a small sign: Rivesaltes Museum. It takes us a few stunned moments to look across the “highway”, and there are the monuments with hearts drawn from the abundant white gravel — the word zachor, “remember” inside of one heart; and desiccated flowers left by those who pause to remember or try to understand. Wind gusts toss burning sand at us that quickly leeches dry our skin, lips and eyes. I can’t help but cringe at Reb Zalman baking in this hell. Wreathes have been laid, each perfectly dried to pallor, flaking away bit by bit.

After adding our own gravel memorial thoughts, we turn and wonder does the museum sign arrow point down the deep sandy road that runs in front of the windmill farm? Despite fearing entrapment in the sand, and our water supply down to a few ounces, we decide to persist, thinking we might not easily find this spot again. About twenty minutes along, another tiny musée sign obscured by scrub points across the way. We drive through taller scrub and then, there it is. The camp itself is the musée — broken open crude concrete prison bunks, many graffittied, and rows of roofless privies — waves of heat rising from the fractured baking decay — for as far as the eye can see.

Barry and I walk among the concrete fragments very separately, in silence. I was among those who took depositions of Holocaust survivors and Allied soldiers some decades back, so storied ghosts are re-triggered to scrape their nails along the surface of my soul. In-woven are thoughts about Reb Zalman.

An engine sound startles and is fear-filling in this utter isolation. An unmarked white van — there, parking. Who? Why? A man and a reluctant girl pulled by the wrist emerge and head toward a section in the other direction. Does she need help? Who would knowingly come here in this heat?

They haven’t seen us. We stalk them quietly. Rounding a corner we see them 30 feet away, beside the remains of a wooden hall. They spot us and turn away so as to not intersect paths. Worried for the girl, I call out a greeting as we hasten toward them. They turn away from us, Barry shouts to wait, and then they do pause until we catch up.

Pourquoi êtes vous ici? Why are you here?” We demand. The man answers in French, roughly meaning: “We live in a nearby village. My grandfather worked as a Vichy prisoner guard and others in the family served Vichy policies enthusiastically. I want my daughter to understand this sin. She and her friends often make war humor; sometimes I catch them in burnt Jew humor. I have brought her to make her aware there is nothing funny here.”

“Papa says the school presents the matter improperly, that they wash over hard truths. So he brings me here. I so very much did not want to come.”

“She must,” he says, “understand our family’s place in this matter. We were several French police in our family. I tell you the job of police is to defend all the people of the land; not entrap them, send them to work camps and escort them to be murdered.” He is literally tearing at his hair in distress, scraping his arms with his nails. Old scabs and scars abound.  “Stop!” She implores him and assures: “I and my friends will never do such things. Nous sommes civilisés — We are civilized people.” Silence.

The father stares at his daughter and finally spits out: “Civilisée est une illusion — Civilized is an illusion. People act like animals to each other; it takes so little pressure for this to happen. Did you know I was in a gang in my youth? No? We have much more to discuss.”

The father turns to ask me, I think hinting it would be nice to have the place to themselves: “Are you leaving? Where will you go from here?” In my simple French I explain: “My teacher, now a wise rabbi, was a prisoner in this camp. We two — me and my husband, we are also Jews. Those young Spanish freedom fighters mentioned on the sign, were murdered by the thousands; they were the ages of your daughter and my two sons. My teacher bids us to do some ritual for them, to look beyond the Jewish experience.” The young girl’s eyes go wide at this, her posture changes from truculent to pensive. We all fall silent.

The father suddenly raises his fist and face rather to heaven and turns towards me: “Je suis un homme laïc, mais vous pouvez dire à Dieu pour moi que j’expie les actions de ma famille, eh?- I am a secular man, but you can tell God for me that I atone the acts of my family, hein?” Silence.

He turns to hug his daughter, ” You know, I am proud of what you say. Eh? At the very least we must try not to be like them.”

The daughter’s only rejoinder is: “Il fait trop chaud. – It’s too hot.”

”Bonne chance (good luck), Madame, monsieur.”  They walk off hand-in-hand. What kind of gang was he in? I wonder.

We ask a lineman working on the windmills to tilt us toward a river. “Left, left and right.” It must be an inside joke, why do all directions given by French people seem the same in this country? He, too, instantly confesses his family worked at the camp, taking my hand as he does, with imploring eyes. What to say? I bless him and those of his town and family with an ever-expanding capacity for kindness. “Oui. Vraiment.” “Yes. Truly.” I am an insecure one with spontaneous blessings, no less trying to do so in French.

We are blessed to leave the ever-sand-entrapping road and heated pauses and pushes, as one steers and the other of us alternately shoves, and we reach tarmac. Some ways along appears a military training camp, open-gated for a visitors day. Maybe this is it?! There we inquire of a young officer-in-training who does not think there is any safe place to enter the river and asks why we seek it. When we explain our mission, he too, says his family were engaged by the Vichy government and worked at the camp, adding, “I am sorry if you had family perhaps die or work there. Such an unforgivable thing.”

What is the purpose of this camp where you work now? Turns out to be the detainment of North African refugees/infiltrators (depending how you see it.) He points the way to a river and “the arch,” which he thinks is what remains of the aqueduct or bridge Reb Zalman so clearly recalled.

Drained from heat and emotion, out of drinking water and no shop in sight, we know we won’t die from persisting, soon find ourselves driving along steeply banked dikes. Finally, indeed near an arching bridge across the river, we park. This is a marshy portion of river, with a low eroded river bank of mud and water pooled only in the riverbed center. Young sun bathers abound, and a few elder fisherman.

I undress down to a bath suit, Barry takes my clothes and settles on the river bank with camera in hand. Gingerly stepping on reeds, I find it difficult to walk in the rich, black, thick mud that threatens to swallow all that has weight. Easily hundreds, perhaps thousands of silent frogs arise at my tread, all bulging eyes, their bodies immersed to stay wet and cool. I continue past their evident niche, toward reflective water. The fishermen and Barry call out, frantically motioning for me to return to the shore.

No, this ritual must be more than a mud bath. I wave to them that it’s OK; though I’m not really so sure.

 Half way across, the water is about eight inches deep, blessedly clear, soothing and cool against the relentless sun and now blistering skin. My soul breaks through before thought arises: “Holy One, please, though I have no merit for your attention, S’il vous plait, faites attention (be careful please), and with bitterness, I call out: Shema Adonai!”

Instead of the rage I’d been carrying along with the Kaddish of Reb Levi Yitzchok since the camp, as I began lifting and splashing the river water upward, a river of gratitude came flowing instead — for Reb Zalman’s survival. And more, for my precious father’s survival, albeit disabled for life, as an Allied soldier. Yes, dear God, such gratitude for all who helped effect liberation, and for all those persecuted and war-deluded aggressors on all sides who attained the awesome, improbable gift of survival.”

Suddenly frogs grab my foreground, as one kicks off against my left leg, and an involuntary “ick” response within leads me to slip and bump into more frogs, and so begins a sinking flailing, until a few staggered steps lead to a bit of surprisingly accessible bedrock.

Floating frogs now pop into view and begin to flicker like holograms as I peer at their faces in trumulant disbelief…hauntingly empty dark eyed, sharp thin noses, dark hair and unpruned gaunt bearded Spaniard twenty-somethings, frogs, Spaniards, frogs…Daring stares. Yearning stares. Vacant stares. Blinking stares. Tears are streaming down my face at their lost youth and the unbearability of retroactive impotence.

A blessing arises unbidden: “May your souls be blessed to break free of this place, of the torment and memories of the horrors you experienced. If souls do return or travel to new destinies or realms beyond this life, may you know and create joy, kindness and peace.” Splashing handfuls of hessed — lovingkindness, up and over the alternating faces and as they dive, only to resurface as I become still and… know Love… different to any form of love ever in my life. A Love that slakes all possible pain and thirst — a Love inside of everything suddenly palpable, flowing in my every cell.

There in the water, the interpenetrated knowing yields … joy?! What is that? I hear Reb Zalman praying Reb Levi Yitzhok’s Dudele for us.



Mailoh du, matoh du. Mizroch du, mayrov du,  dorem du, Tzofen du,

Du du, du du, DU!! du du du, du, du, DU DU DU!!!, DU DU DU!!!

I dance and sing it slipping about in the river and an up-rushing of relieved souls join in.

This intimate Love pours through all form, space, song is love, light is love, water is love, mud is love… much as water frees the sometimes lingering soul during taharah… the released up-rushing souls spin in the Love and even seem to pass through my molecular body in their dance of ascent…


Finally, a soft breeze on wet skin beckons me back from the inter-loving, amazing reciprocity of the Dudele. Y’hei shmei rabba m’vorach. “May the Great Name be blessed. (from Kaddish, this is the a sense, for me, of the mitzvah of yirah, awe.)

Barry beckons from the river bank, holding a water bottle aloft. Someone has been kind.