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  • Nazi Labour Camps in Paris: Austerlitz, Lévitan, Bassano, July 1943–August 1944
  • Shannon L. Fogg
Nazi Labour Camps in Paris: Austerlitz, Lévitan, Bassano, July 1943–August 1944. By Jean-Marc Dreyfus and Sarah Gensburger. Translated by Jonathan Hensher. New York: Berghahn Books, 2011. Pp. x + 168. Cloth $70.00. ISBN 978-0857451392.

Austerlitz, Lévitan, and Bassano are three places that few people associate with the Holocaust in France. Yet, Jean-Marc Dreyfus and Sarah Gensburger argue that these three labor camps are central to understanding how economic expropriation and physical extermination were linked and could mutually reinforce each other. Between July 1943 and August 1944, nearly 800 prisoners passed through these three Parisian camps. The internees, mostly Jews whose status was unclear (prisoner-of-war wives, half-Jews, spouses of non-Jews), were transferred to these urban labor camps from Drancy, the main transit camp in France. Located in a warehouse near the Austerlitz train station, a former furniture store, and a private Jewish residence, the camps served as depots and packing facilities for the items looted from Jewish apartments as part of the Germans’ Möbel Aktion. Using a microhistorical and interdisciplinary approach, Dreyfus, a historian, and Gensburger, a sociologist, seek to explain why these camps and their prisoners represent a “memory hole,” i.e., why they are not part of the collective memory or historiography of World War II in France. Originally published in French in 2003, the English translation now brings the monograph to a wider audience.

The book’s early chapters provide the historical background to Möbel Aktion and explain the key role the Germans played in expropriation and the creation of the [End Page 697] Parisian labor camps. A branch of Alfred Rosenberg’s Einsatzstab Reichsleiter Rosenberg (ERR) was set up in Paris in July 1940, and immediately began appropriating books, artwork, and music. The work of the ERR slowed after the summer of 1941, however, once the major Jewish collections had already been sent to Germany. This changed after December 1941, when Rosenberg, in his new role as minister of the occupied eastern territories, requested permission from Adolf Hitler to take furniture from “abandoned” Jewish apartments in western Europe to meet German needs in eastern Europe. Hitler ordered the transfer of furniture from the West to the East on December 31, 1941, calling it Möbel Aktion. The program was transferred from the ERR to the Dienststelle Westen in April 1942, and placed under the direction of Baron Kurt von Behr. The looting of apartments marked a shift from economic “Aryanization” to the complete dispossession of Jews—with the implication that they would not be returning to their homes.

Although the Vichy regime wanted control over the despoilment of Jewish apartments, Möbel Aktion was a German operation meant to benefit the Nazis and German civilians materially (an argument elaborated by Götz Aly in Hitler’s Beneficiaries: Plunder, Racial War, and the Nazi Welfare State [New York, 2007]). But von Behr quickly realized that the operation would require French logistical support. French removal firms provided trucks and men to empty Jewish apartments and deliver the contents to the depots, while collaborationist organizations helped locate unoccupied apartments to loot. As the Nazis began deporting more Jews from France, the scale of potential expropriation increased. So did demand for furniture in Germany as the Dienststelle Westen’s activities became more widely known. The sorting and packing of objects for transport proved, however, to be the bottleneck that slowed the entire process. By the summer of 1943, von Behr faced a shortage of skilled workers able to repair, sort, and pack household items. It was then decided to use Jews held at Drancy who were classified as “not deportable,” thereby solving several problems at once: overcrowding at Drancy, the status of “questionable” Jews, and von Behr’s need for more manpower.

The book then shifts its focus to the camps themselves and the internees’ experiences. There is also a shift in the sources, from primarily French and German archival material in the earlier chapters to a greater emphasis on personal papers, memoirs, and interviews. The authors detail life in the...