The camp, near Perpignan, served as a halfway point for some thousands of Spanish republican refugees who were later sent to their deaths in Nazi concentration camps,
The ruins of the camp. Photo: AFP
It was constructed specifically to house the influx of Spanish refugees: men, women and children who were fleeing their homeland at the end of the Spanish Civil War.
More than 21,000 Spanish refugees fled to France and were housed in the camp, 30km from the Spanish border.
During the Second World War, the camp was used to hold Jews and gypsies, alongside those who had fled Franco's Spain. Estimates put the number of republicans sent to Nazi concentration camps from Rivesaltes at around 8,000.
The camp's dark history continued through the 1950s and 1960s when it was used to detain harkis – the Algerian soldiers serving in the French army, during the Algerian war.
More recently, it served as a detention centre for people who had made their way illegally into France, and only closed its doors for good in 2007.
French Prime Minister Manuel Valls, himself the grandson of the editor of a Republican newspaper during the Civil War, officially inaugerated the memorial museum on Friday.
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The memorial, designed by architect Rudy Ricciotti, is a windowless cement building buried beneath the ground, a poignant symbol of forced imprisonment. Inside, the memorial houses photographs, videos and maps as well as a teaching space and auditorium.
One of the few Spanish detainees still alive today is Gilbert Susagna, 80, who lives in Perpignan. He was interned in the camp in 1941 with his mother.
His father was a communist and lost a lung in the Siege of Madrid before he fled to France in 1939.
“The Jews and the gypsies had a terrible time my mother told me,” Susagna told El País, “I was little so it wasn’t as bad, but it is something that has marked my life.”
Susagna had planned to attend the official opening on Friday.
The inside of the memorial. Photo: AFP
Around half of the 21,000 Spaniards who were interned in the camp were sent to concentration camps, usually Mauthausen in Austria, where 65 percent of them died.
In 1942, one of the darkest periods in the camp’s history, 2,251 Jews, including 110 children, were transferred from Rivesaltes via Drancy to Auschwitz, where they were killed.
“There is an important part of Spain’s history in the camp,” Denis Peschanski, the son of one of the camp’s inmates from the Republican brigades, and the current president of the Scientific Committee of the Memorial of Rivesaltes told El País.
There have been many attempts to destroy evidence relating to the camp; in 1998 thousands of files relating to Rivesaltes were discovered in a skip.
When local authorities and the French government announced that they would bulldoze the buildings on the site, relative of former inmates and civil associations joined forced to prevent it.
One man who fought for the memorial is Socialist mayor of Argeles-sur-Mer Pierre Aylagas, himself the son of a Republican Spanish farmer who was interned in the camp.
“I’ve worked for this memorial because it stands for the values that I defend,” he said.