Detail of fres­co at Camp des Milles

In the sum­mer of 1939, Parisians danced at extrav­a­gant balls (one fea­tur­ing ele­phants!) and par­tied at art open­ings and more inti­mate soirees; it seemed, accord­ing to The New York­ers Janet Flan­ner, that it had tak­en the threat of war to make the French loosen up and have a real­ly swell and civ­i­lized good time.” Then Ger­many invad­ed Poland, and France declared war. Parisians fled, but most returned with­in weeks. The book­sellers of the Seine re-opened their stalls, and by late Sep­tem­ber Paris was car­ry­ing on large­ly as it had. But in these months of the pho­ny war” before Ger­many invad­ed France the fol­low­ing May, the lives of some ten thou­sand Jew­ish refugees in France changed dra­mat­i­cal­ly: they were round­ed up as ene­my sub­jects” and con­fined in French intern­ment camps.

At the time, France was a coun­try in which Jew­ish cit­i­zens had enjoyed full rights for near­ly 150 years. Léon Blum, who was Jew­ish, had been Prime Min­is­ter in 1936 and again in 1938. Many promi­nent writ­ers, artists, thinkers, and per­form­ers sought refuge in France after their oppo­si­tion to Hitler put them in dan­ger in East­ern Europe. These refugees, who were decid­ed­ly and often out­spo­ken­ly anti-Nazi and anti-fas­cist, were nonethe­less round­ed up and con­fined in camps under French mil­i­tary com­mand on the excuse of nation­al secu­ri­ty — intern­ments due in fact to a mix­ture of xeno­pho­bia, absur­di­ty and admin­is­tra­tive disorder.”

That frank assess­ment comes from Camp des Milles, a memo­r­i­al muse­um housed in an old brick and tile fac­to­ry that the French gov­ern­ment req­ui­si­tioned for use as an intern­ment camp start­ing in Sep­tem­ber of 1939. The camp, out­side Aix-en-Provence, became known as the camp of artists” because so many interned there were artists and writ­ers who had set­tled in near­by towns like Arles and Nice.

Lion Feucht­wanger, at the time one of the world’s most notable nov­el­ists, fled Munich for the charm­ing lit­tle fish­ing vil­lage of Sanary-sur-Mer, which had become so pop­u­lar with Ger­man refugee writ­ers that it was dubbed the cap­i­tal of Ger­man lit­er­a­ture.” Ger­man artist Max Ernst moved to Paris in the ear­ly 1920s, and even­tu­al­ly set­tled in Saint Mar­tin D’Ardeche. Pho­tog­ra­ph­er and artist Hans Bellmer fled Ger­many for Paris in 1938. Nobel Prize win­ner Otto Mey­er­hof, along with oth­er promi­nent sci­en­tists, as well as con­duc­tors, com­posers, archi­tects, opera singers, musi­cians, play­wrights, poets, and actors, were liv­ing in France in the fall of 1939. And all were interned at Camp des Milles.

Even in this life behind barbed wire, they man­aged to pur­sue their art — an effort to fend off the dehu­man­iza­tion of camp life.

The accom­mo­da­tions were as lux­u­ri­ous as you might imag­ine a brick fac­to­ry would offer: men slept on straw scat­tered over con­crete so thick with brick dust that it made the floors uneven to walk on. Dust filled the lungs of those forced to live there, some­times to the point of cough­ing up blood. They often suf­fered from dysen­tery due to poor nutri­tion and even poor­er san­i­ta­tion. At one point, three thou­sand men shared four filthy latrines.

Yet even in this life behind barbed wire, they man­aged to pur­sue their art — an effort to fend off the dehu­man­iza­tion of camp life. In a tes­ta­ment to the human spir­it, they made what had been under­ground kilns into stu­dios. They set up a Berlin-style cabaret club in one of the brick ovens and paint­ed a wood beam over the entrance with the name of a famous Berlin lit­er­ary and polit­i­cal club, Die Katakomb” (The Cat­a­combs). They wrote and per­formed plays and sym­phonies that would have been remark­able in any of the world’s most famous venues. And through a black mar­ket estab­lished in the camp, men could some­times access — along with food, alco­hol, tobac­co, and news­pa­pers — paint and oth­er art supplies.

They cre­at­ed some four hun­dred works of art, using what­ev­er they could find. Vis­i­tors to Camp des Milles today can still see carv­ings and paint­ings on the ceil­ing beams and fac­to­ry walls. In one extreme­ly mov­ing moment told in the dis­plays at Camp des Milles, Max Ernst picked up a brick and began to chip at it with a pen knife, mes­mer­iz­ing every­one watch­ing as he formed it into a sculpture.

When it looked as if the invad­ing Ger­man army might reach the camp, the French camp com­man­der allowed the men impris­oned there to leave in locked train cars head­ed for the Span­ish bor­der, an escape attempt that became known as the ghost train.” News reached the train as it neared the bor­der that an arriv­ing train of Ger­man sol­diers would stop and arrest them before they could cross to free­dom. The train turned back, and all but a few of its pas­sen­gers were returned to camps, only to lat­er learn that the rumored train of Ger­man sol­diers was, in fact, their own train of refugees.

After France fell to Ger­many, the Vichy regime ran Camp des Milles as a tran­sit and intern­ment camp from which internees might gain per­mis­sion to leave France. But the emi­gra­tion require­ments were such that few could gain legal release. And the Gestapo Kundt Com­mis­sion began search­ing the camps for polit­i­cal refugees to be sent back to Ger­many. Escape became more nec­es­sary — and extreme­ly dan­ger­ous, both for the pris­on­ers and those who helped them escape.

Vis­i­tors to Camp des Milles today can still see carv­ings and paint­ings on the ceil­ing beams and fac­to­ry walls.” Image cour­tesy of the author.

Many who did man­age to leave France from the camps did so ille­gal­ly with the help of efforts like that of the Cen­tre Améri­cain de Sec­ours (the Amer­i­can Res­cue Cen­ter), an orga­ni­za­tion estab­lished by Amer­i­can Var­i­an Fry. Fry came to Mar­seille in August of 1940 with a secret list of notable peo­ple for whom he could pro­vide Amer­i­can visas if he could get them out of France. These includ­ed artists like Picas­so and Cha­gall, writ­ers like Han­nah Arendt, Nobel lau­re­ates, and oth­er great thinkers. Fry quick­ly ran through his fund­ing, though, with­out so much as locat­ing many of those on his list.

Chica­go heiress Mary Jayne Gold, who’d cho­sen to stay in France even as most expats fled, joined Fry’s effort in the ear­ly weeks, and pro­vid­ed addi­tion­al funds. Gold also found and rent­ed a ram­shackle old chateau — Vil­la Air Bel — where she and Fry and oth­ers work­ing with them lived togeth­er. They even hid refugees and oth­ers want­ed by the Nazis there until they could smug­gle them out of France.

The Mar­seille har­bor was too close­ly guard­ed to send refugees out by ship, but in the first weeks of this effort per­son­nel at the Cer­bère train sta­tion, near the Span­ish bor­der, could be per­suad­ed or bribed to look the oth­er way. Soon this escape too became too dan­ger­ous, and refugees were left with no way out of France except by foot over the Pyre­nees. A first, short­er hik­ing path soon became too fraught. But two refugees from Ger­many, Hans and Lisa Fit­tko, learned of anoth­er secret path out — longer and more treach­er­ous, but less watched. The cou­ple remained in France and took great risks with their own lives to help refugees escape over this route, gen­er­al­ly dis­guised as agri­cul­tur­al work­ers and with only mea­ger provisions.

Fry, Gold, and the oth­ers liv­ing at Vil­la Air Bel worked tire­less­ly and at great per­son­al risk — and with irre­press­ible spir­it sim­i­lar to the refugees mak­ing art under impos­si­ble cir­cum­stances at Camp des Milles. They played crazy games they made up, with names like the Mur­der Game” and Exquis­ite Corpse.” They designed an extrav­a­gant Sur­re­al­ist deck of cards which became known as the Jeu de Mar­seille.” They man­aged to get a radio sta­tion all the way from Boston, play­ing jazz music for­bid­den in Vichy France. And they host­ed salons out on the belvedere, where they hung art in the trees. There was lit­tle food due to rationing but there was always plen­ty of wine.

I was drawn to this sto­ry that inspired my new nov­el, The Post­mistress of Paris (Harp­er Books, Novem­ber 30) by the tough­ness of spir­it that drove those interned at Camp des Milles to cre­ate art even in the direst cir­cum­stances, a sto­ry I learned of through an inter­est in the artist and writer Leono­ra Car­ring­ton and her love affair with Max Ernst. I drew on the real expe­ri­ences of Ernst, who was interned at Camp des Milles, and oth­ers interned there and at oth­er French camps to cre­ate my fic­tion­al Edouard Moss, through whom I hope read­ers will expe­ri­ence what being an artist refugee need­ing to escape France might have been like. A pho­to­graph of Dan­ny Bened­ité (one of the real heroes of this sto­ry) hang­ing a paint­ing by Ernst in one of the plane trees drew me to Vil­la Air Bel and Fry’s sto­ry. That part of this sto­ry turns out to be rich with real heroes, many of whom appear in fic­tion­al­ized form in my nov­el: Dan­ny and his wife, Theo Bénédite, Miri­am Dav­en­port, Jus­tus Gussie” Rosen­berg, Mar­cel Mau­rice” Verseanu, Charles Faw­cett and Leon Ball, Lena Fis­chmann, Bill Freier, and Hiram Har­ry” Bing­ham IV. I chose to tell this part of the sto­ry through Nanée, who is, like Edouard and his daugh­ter Luki, fic­tion­al, but whose expe­ri­ences are inspired and informed by real life hero­ines, includ­ing Chica­go heiress Mary Jayne Gold and Ger­man refugee Lisa Fittko.

As with my nov­el The Last Train to Lon­don, I hope my sto­ry does the real peo­ple involved in these efforts jus­tice, and that read­ers of my nov­el will be drawn to learn more about the real sto­ries that inspired it too.

Meg Waite Clay­ton is the New York Times best­selling author of eight nov­els, includ­ing the forth­com­ing The Post­mistress of Paris and the Nation­al Jew­ish Book Award final­ist The Last Train to Lon­don (pub­lish­ing in 20 lan­guages). A grad­u­ate of the Uni­ver­si­ty of Michi­gan law school, Meg’s short works have appeared in major news­pa­pers and mag­a­zines and on pub­lic radio.