The Deportation of the Jews from the Nazi Transit Camps Drancy (France) and Malines (Belgium)

As the Nazis had included Belgium and France in a suitable territorial ensemble in May 1940, they also adapted the implementation of persecution and ultimately extermination of the Jews to the particularities of the occupied countries. The important decisions however, were made in Berlin. During a meeting Eichmann made known Himmler`s decision to begin the deportation of the Jews, to Theodore Dannecker and Kurt Asche, heads of the Departments of Jewish Affairs in Paris and in Brussels. The deportations from Central Europe and the particularities of the German occupation in France and in Belgium are discussed in the second part of the general introduction of this online course, and thus will not be dealt with here. This chapter will focus on the origins of the Drancy and Mechelen camps, their operation and on the daily life of the internees. To conclude, the statistics of the deportations from both these camps will be analyzed in depth. The online course on The Nazi Camps and the Persecution and the Murder of the Jews, particularly chapter C dealing with Transit Camps in Western Europe during the Holocaust, will complement this chapter.


Drancy was the antechamber of death for over 62.000 of the 75.000 Jews deported from France. Located not far from Paris, the camp was established in the Cité de la Muette, in an ensemble of public housing the construction of which had not yet been completed. It was located in proximity to three train stations, among which le Bourget and Bobigny had rail connections with Germany and beyond; to Poland. The large building, built in a U-shape, could easily be transformed into a camp able to accommodate over 5.000 internees.  Four towers joined by a double ring of barbed wire surrounded the camp.

It served several functions.

The City of Muette was a place of detention for communists or foreigners "who posed a threat to national defence and public security". It was opened by the French government in September 1939, and passed into the hands of the occupiers in June 1940, who used it to detain prisoners of war or British and Canadian civilians. They were gradually transferred to other camps. On 20 August, 1941, Drancy became an assembly camp for Jews, after the arrival of the first internees arrested for racial motives. By 24 August, 4.232 Jewish men between the ages of 15 to 50, arrested during a roundup in Paris, were delivered to the camp, which, between November 1941 and July 1942, also served as a hostage reserve for the Military Commander in Occupied France. When attacks against the occupier or its collaborators occurred, the Nazis took hostages among the Jews in Drancy and had them shot.

The first transport for Auschwitz-Birkenau left on 22 June, 1942. Between 22 June 1942 and 17 August 1944, 62 transports left Drancy. It was not the only camp from which convoys of the Final Solution departed. Twelve additional trains departed for Auschwitz-Birkenau from Compiègne, Pithiviers, Beaune-la-Rolande, Angers and Lyon.

The Mechelen assembly camp fell into the same framework of genocidal deportation. Until then, the building served only as military barracks. As of 15 July, 1942, the German military administration put the Dossin barracks in Mechelen, which were abandoned at the time, at the disposal of the Jewish Section of the Sipo-SD. The SS-Sammellager für Juden was reserved for the deportation of the Jews, with one exception: In October 1943, 351 Gypsies, arrested to be deported to Auschwitz-Birkenau, were detained there. The Dossin barracks served no other function from its opening on 27 July, 1942 until its abandonment on 3 September 1944.

The choice of location is obvious it was situated halfway between Brussels and Antwerp, where nearly all the 70.000 Belgian Jews lived, the building was bordered by a railway line that linked these two cities and was close to a junction towards Leuven, Germany and the East. Its proximity to the Breendonk camp, reserved for hostages, political prisoners and members of the resistance, led the occupier to conclude that the secure environment was neutral and that the presence of a camp in the center of a residential quarter would provoke no reaction among the local population. The building, still partially equipped, was large enough to accommodate over 2.000 inmates.   

The assembly camp for the Jews opened its doors on 27 July 1942, when the first internees were brought in. The first transport for Auschwitz-Birkenau departed on 4 April 1942. 28 transports of the Final Solution carried over 25.000 Jews and 351 Gypsies to Auschwitz-Birkenau. Five distinctive transports (218 Jews of particular nationalities who were excluded from the Final Solution) were transferred to Buchenwald, Ravensbrück, Bergen-Belsen, and Vittel.


When the occupier took over the Drancy camp, the presence of Germans was limited. The camp was managed by the French forces, which ensured both exterior and interior surveillance. The Gendarmes engaged in multiple and lucrative means of smuggling (food, cigarettes and mail). They ruled with arbitrary power and terror. The rules were many, unpredictable and severe. The internees could not know them all, which earned them numerous punishments, notably the" Gnouf", the dungeon. They were forbidden from going from one stairwell to another or from one room to another, to smoke, to light fire in the chimneys of the barracks, to receive packages, to correspond with the exterior, to look out the windows, to receive visitors.

In June 1943, Drancy came under the command of Alois Brunner, who had been charged with the liquidation of the Jews in France. Brunner made his appearance in the camp for the first time on 9 June. A member of the Department of Jewish Affairs in Berlin, he took orders directly from Adolf Eichmann. He arrived in France after having expelled and deported the majority of the Jews in Vienna, Berlin and Salonika. To carry out his mission, Brunner reorganized Drancy on the model of a concentration camp. In July 1943, daily roll calls were established. They served to keep up to date the lists of the different categories of detainees.

The camp was completely reorganized. The detainees were obliged to do numerous jobs.

Brunner excluded all the intermediaries between the Jews, who had to be completed isolated, and their executioners and. The French administration withdrew from the camp. The SS took over the internal surveillance of the camp while the French gendarmes provided control solely for the exterior. The Jews came under direct control of the SS, which would ultimately implicate them more deeply in their own persecution. Brunner had at his disposal too few SS-men to efficiently administer the camp. He reinforced an internee administration and created a Jewish Order Service. The Union Général des Israélites de France (U.G.I.F) was made the camp’s sole supplier. Brunner and his deputy Brückler established an arbitrary reign of terror. Collective punishments were introduced. The bullying intensified, receiving individual packages was prohibited, as was correspondence with one exception: the internees were permitted to write to their loved ones in order to encourage them to deliver themselves. The categories of deportees were reorganized; ultimately it was Brunner who decided who was "deportable" and who was "non-deportable."

The Mechelen camp in the Dossin barracks, organized by SS-Sturmbannführer Philipp Schmitt, was operational as of 27 July 1942. The camp was initially administered by approximately ten German SS-men, assisted by as many Flemish SS-men. The external guard of the camp was first assigned to the Wehrmacht until December 1942, and then to a Flemish SS company attached to the Brussels Sipo (SD). Unlike in the Drancy camp, the local authorities or police forces did not collaborate in the establishment, surveillance or management of the camp.

The rules of the camp were given orally. The detainees had to salute the SS in the courtyard, move out of their way, take care of their hygiene, they were not to assemble in the courtyard, to smoke in the rooms, or to be found in a room other than their own, etc… These rules were transmitted to the new arrivals, by the detainees already in the camp, or by the SS-men themselves. Subject to arbitrary and unfair measures, the detainees were often punished.

The Jewish detainees took on the administrative and maintenance work of the camp. The SS appointed Jewish leaders, to make sure that order and discipline reigned in the camp.  This was a type of order service, but far less developed than the one in Drancy. Several young Jewish women were employed at the “Aufnahme” (admission), under the direction of the SS. They drew up individual files, recopied the information on the transport lists, and confiscated the identification papers. Until March 1943, the personal documents were systematically destroyed.

The robbery of goods was perfected in Dossin. The Brüsseler Treuhandgesellschaft, a financial organization established by the occupier to search for, confiscate and liquidate the goods of Jews and enemies, had an office in the camp. Erich Crull, its delegate, was an accountant and not a member of the SS. Body searches were conducted with excessive zeal, ranging from verbal humiliation to sexual abuse, even leading to countless cases of physical violence. This "formality" helped to break the new internees, morally and physically. There, the Jews were forced to hand over the keys to their homes and to concede all their goods to the Reich.

Daily Life

When the Drancy camp was first opened, the housing complex was not yet completed and nothing was planned to receive the internees. The living conditions were disastrous:  the floors were made of concrete and the pipes were exposed. Rudimentary sinks were installed over troughs, around which the ground was always wet. The windows were poorly jointed together, exposing the detainees to air currents and wind.

Because the food supply was disastrous, hunger prevailed almost permanently. Theoretically the rations included 275 grams of bread, a light broth and a coffee substitute, at times brightened up with 50 grams of pasta. The already insufficient quantity of food supplied to the camps, was trimmed by the providers and by the internees employed in the kitchens.  Malnutrition was widespread, and the health of the internees was deteriorating. The average weight loss of the internees was 30kg. Diarrhea was common and there were several cases of dysentery. From August to October 1942, fourty detainees died of hunger in the camp. In November 1941, the Germans set free nearly 900 suffering from cachexia. They also allowed acquaintances outside the camp to send parcels. In February 1942, the Union Général des Israélite de France (U.G.I.F) took charge of part of the supply of the camp. Nevertheless, these vital initiatives remained insufficient. In March 1942, the population of the camp increased considerably and hunger re-emerged.

The situation of the women in Drancy, who had arrived mostly after the Vélodrome d’Hiver roundup of July 16 and 17 1942, was especially tragic. Isolated from the men, they became the prey of the gendarmes and the members of the Police of Jewish Affairs (Police aux Questions Juives; PQJ; dissolved on 5 July 1942, though its members continued to serve in other forms). They were humiliated, beaten, searched and abused. The representatives of authority in the camp, protected by their impunity, claimed the privilege of the corporal examination of the youngest and most beautiful among them. Nothing was planned in terms of hygiene. The indisposed women, could not wash themselves in the dormitories with running water. Access to the latrines was regulated. They could access them, taking turns, in groups of ten. Those who could not hold back soiled the staircases and the hallways. From July to September, of the one hundred suicides in the camp, most were committed by women, pushed to their limits and desperate.

The most miserable internees of the camps were without a doubt the 4.000 children between the ages of 2 and 12, handed over in the second half of August 1942.

Taken during the Vel d’Hiv roundup with their parents, they remained alone in the Loiret camps while their parents were deported from Drancy or Pithiviers. Abandoned in indescribable conditions, these children were transferred to Drancy in four groups, accompanied by 200 adults. In Drancy, they were crammed in more than 100 per dormitory and only equipped with straw and buckets for sanitary requirements. The filthiness soon became repulsive. It was without their parents that they were placed on the transports for Auschwitz-Birkenau as of 14 August. With such an influx of children, the camp developed some form of organization, and established a dining hall and as of October, a school.

In the Dossin barracks, there were two distinct periods for the assembly camp: The first, from 27 July 1942 to March 1943, was terrible for the detainees. It was under the command of SS-Major Philip Schmitt who ruled with terror and violence. He was always accompanied by his dog, which he used as a weapon against the internees. Both Commander Schmitt and the SS, assured of impunity with regard to their treatment of the Jews, humiliated, insulted and beat the internees. On 8 September 1942, Schmitt and his SS attacked the religious Jews: they shaved their beards and their sidelocks (payot), marked them with swastikas, and forced them to dance and sing. [[nid: During a collective punishment, Schmitt unleashed his dog on Herman Hirsch, a 20 year old who had been selected for convoy XVIII. The young man, seriously injured, had to have a leg amputated. After October 1942, when the pace of the deportations drastically slowed down (75% of the deportees from Mechelen had already been transported to Auschwitz-Birkenau), Schmitt organized workshops. The German and Flemish SS individually profited from these workshops with the help of a privileged internee, a corrupt Jewish businessman. Following the discovery of the smuggeling, Schmitt and some of his men were dismissed from their positions in Dossin. The Jews involved were deported. 

In March 1943, Schmitt was replaced by Hans Gerhard Frank, a former police officer who had become a member of the Department for Jewish Affairs at the “Sipo-SD” in Brussels. Thus began the second phase at the Dossin barracks that would last until 3-4 September 1944. Frank attempted to improve the conditions of the internees with a better food supply and a reduction of abuses. However, the pace of deportation had fallen drastically. The Jews remained longer in Mechelen, usually up to three months. They hided and the Sipo-SD had difficulty in assembling enough Jews for transports. The camp was faced with new problems: overpopulation, deterioration of sanitary conditions, epidemic diseases. People did not die in Mechelen or at least very few did. Of over 26.000 internees, there were only 52 deaths, among them nine during the transport between Antwerp and Mechelen. Yet it was under Frank that the only death caused by ill treatment occurred: Bernard Vander Ham, 49 years old, was beaten and drenched in freezing water. He succumbed a few days later.

Overall, life in the camp was a barrack life. The conditions of hygiene were tolerable. The dormitories were furnished with iron beds, but after October 1942, the internees also slept on straw mattresses on the floor. They were permitted to receive packages and the food necessary to complement the distributed rations. There was hunger in the camp, but not comparable at all to the situation in Drancy.

Deportation figures from Drancy and Dossin

Over 75.000 Jews, among them at least 11.100 children, were deported from France. In addition to the approximately 71.400 victims murdered in Birkenau, Sobibor or Majdanek or who perished in the framework of the extermination program through work in the concentration camps and the Kommandos, we must add at least 2.500 Jews who perished in the internment camps and at least 1.200 Jews executed as members of the resistance, as hostages or as targets of extrajudicial executions.

While there were 79 numbered transports from France, 74 actually left French soil. Transports 41, 43, 54, 56 and 64 did not leave. The majority of the transports, 62, left from Drancy. Over 57.400 deportees boarded the 56 transports destined for Auschwitz-Birkenau. Six trains which left from Drancy deported over 4.900 Jews that followed a different route: two transports were sent to Sobibor and Majdanek, two others to Sobibor, one towards Kaunas and finally, the last, took 51 deportees to Buchenwald. In 1942, twelve other transports left from other French camps - Compiègne, Pithiviers, Beaune-la-Rolande, Angers or Lyon - transporting 11.500 Jews, all of them to Auschwitz-Birkenau. To date, there is no accurate information concerning escapes from the transports from Drancy. Only two are identified.

In 1942 alone, especially between July and November, almost 42.000 Jews were deported from France to Auschwitz-Birkenau. During this crucial period, more than half of the Jewish deportees from France were transported towards their fatal destination in 43 transports. On average, the Nazis deported 7.000 Jews per month. Between 1943 and 1944, the SS still managed to assemble 31 transports and send close to 32.000 Jews to their deaths. The monthly average of deportation fell to 2.000 people, despite the frantic hunt by the Nazis and their collaborators. Upon arrival in the killing centers, close to 48.000 Jews (men, women and children) were murdered after disembarking from the train. Among the deportees, there were only 2.600 survivors in 1945, less than 3.5% of the deportees.

The Dossin barracks were the only assembly camp for Jews destined for the genocidal deportation from Belgium and the North of France. No Jewish transport left from Breendonk or other places of detention in that territory. 28 transports left Mechelen for Auschwitz-Birkenau: 27 transports of Jews and one small transport of Gypsies. The 19 first transports were carried out aboard third class passenger wagons, but there were many escapes: a total of 322 were counted. These escapes led the SS to reorganize the transports as of 19April 1943. The 20th transport was the first made up of cattle cars. Despite this, 236 Jewish deportees were able to jump off. Among them there was also a case unique in Europe: three young resistance fighters stopped the transport, opened a wagon and liberated 17 people. The others escaped by jumping on their own. In total, 538 escapes were counted for all transports.

Of the 25.834 deportees from Mechelen, 25.251 reached their destination. Almost 16.000 Jews, mostly women and children, were gassed immediately upon arrival, in the gas chambers of Birkenau. Only Transport Z, comprised of 351 Gypsies, escaped selection upon arrival. They were all accepted in the Birkenau camp and were registered there.

16.621 were deported in 17 transports between August and October 1942. These "100 days" were the critical period of extermination of the Jews of Belgium and Northern France. It was the period during which the Jews were summoned to the Dossin barracks (4.000 people) under the false pretext of being put to work, taken during the mass roundups of the summer of 1942 (4.300 people), or arrested by denunciation, during the chase, or arrested in their homes. As of October 1942, many Jews went into hiding, assisted by a network of people willing to take them in for the night, or individual rescuers. In two years, the SS was only able to gather 8.600 Jews, deported in 10 transports, generally less crowded than the ones of 1942. Only 1.251 (among them 33 Gypsies) survived, 5% of all deportees directed towards Auschwitz-Birkenau.

Five unique transports that were not part of the final solution departed from the Mechelen camp: on 13 December 1943, 132 Jews of Turkish, Spanish or Hungarian nationality were deported to Buchenwald and Ravensbrück; 72 survived. Fourteen Hungarian Jews were deported to Bergen-Belsen on 19 April 1944. In 1945, five among them were still alive. Finally, on 23 February and 20 June 1944, 29 and 43 Jews who were citizens of belligerent Allied countries (protected nationalities), were transferred to the internment center of Vittel. 66 were repatriated in 1945.


Laurence Schram