Travel Guides Crafted by Experienced Archaeologists & Historians

World War II & the Holocaust in France

France was a major player in World War II, having declared war on Germany in 1939 after the invasion of Poland. Despite having a large and well-equipped army, France was quickly defeated by Germany in 1940, leading to the establishment of a collaborationist regime led by Marshal Philippe Pétain. Resistance movements within France fought against both the collaborationist government and the German occupation, with notable figures such as Charles de Gaulle leading the Free French Forces. Many thousands of Jews, homosexuals and Roma were rounded up in internment camps in France, and sent to death camps in the east. France was liberated by the Allies in 1944 and played a significant role in the remainder of the war, including the Normandy landings and the liberation of Paris.

World War II & the Holocaust in Paris

Paris is not widely thought of as a destination where visitors can explore the stories of World War II. For a start, the city itself was not as visibly marked and dramatically scarred by the war as many other European cities were. More significantly, and for understandable reasons, the French capital tends to be overlooked for the D-Day Beaches. Perhaps most visitors know that Paris was occupied by the German Third Reich from 14 June 1940 to 25 August 1944. Few are aware, however, that beyond a few memorials and museums Paris has a number of poignant landmarks that tell the many, varied stories of a city under siege and an occupied nation’s complicity in the Holocaust.

World War II & Holocaust Sites & Museums in France

Commonwealth War Graves Experience, Arras

In the town of Beaurains, on the edge of Arras, the Commonwealth War Graves Commission has their principal workshop, from where British and Commonwealth cemeteries and memorials around the world are maintained. In the Visitor Centre, open to all, free of charge, a series of permanent exhibits explore every facet of the work of the CWGC, from finding bodies who fell during the two World Wars, to the caring for individual gravestones in cemeteries around the world. As well as the exhibits, windows on the workshops allow visitors to see craftspeople performing their work.

Éperlecques Bunker

The Blockhaus d’Éperlecques was built by Nazi Germany between March 1943 and July 1944 intended to launch V-2 ballistic missiles from France to London. The bunker was built using prisoners of war and other forced labour. It was designed to launch 36 missiles per day. Aerial attacks from the Allies meant the construction was disrupted and it was never completed to be used for launching missiles. Éperlecques was captured from the Germans in September 1944, but it was not until much later was the true purpose of the bunker revealed. An interesting audio tour guides visitors on a present path through the facility.

Galerie nationale du Jeu de Paume

Shortly after Paris was occupied, the Reichsleiter Rosenberg Taskforce set up its headquarters in the Grand Orient de France, the largest Masonic Lodge in France. Initially they only collected books and archives belonging to Jews and Masons who had fled Paris. By October 1940, under Göring’s orders, the Taskforce was charged with collecting Nazi looted art. Art came from around France and Belgium to the Jeu de Paume in the Tuileries Gardens just off the Place de la Concorde. Rose Valland secretly documented this activity; her work features in the film Monuments Men.

German Army Headquarters – Saint Germain en Laye

From 14 June 1940 to 25 August 1944 around 20,000 German soldiers and officers were based in Saint-Germain-en-Laye. The city was the headquarters of the German Army Command in the West (Oberbefehlshaber West), which under Field Marshal Gerd von Rundstedt was responsible for Operation Sea Lion – the planned Nazi invasion of Britain. Some 20 bunkers, erected to shelter soldiers in case of air attack, still exist today. One of these is alongside the Renaissance castle that today houses the National Archaeology Museum. Rundstedt set himself up in the Pavillon Henri VI, once a royal residence where Louis XIV was born, now a luxury 4* hotel.

Le Petit Mont Chambered Tomb

The Cairn de Petit Mont is thought to be one of the most significant chambered tombs in Brittany. Although this is for all intents and purposes a “neolithic site”, from about 6,600 years ago, it is an excellent example of how sites from one period are re-used in following periods. Artefacts recovered during excavations show that this site was also occupied during the Bronze and Iron Ages. But the most obvious evidence of re-use is the typical German bunker built into the cairn in 1943

Mémorial des Martyrs de la Déportation

Behind Notre Dame Cathedral, at the very eastern tip of the Île de la Cité is the Mémorial des Martyrs de la Déportation. Inaugurated by President Charles de Gaulle in 1962, this memorial pays tribute to 200,000 plus children, women and men who were Jews, homosexuals, gypsies, political opponents, and so deported from all over France to Nazi concentration camps between 1940 and 1944. A crypt contains the Tomb of the Unknown Deportee: an individual who died in the concentration camp of Neustadt. Each year on the last Sunday in April a memorial ceremony is held here to remember the Deportees from France.

Oradour-sur-Glane Martyr Village

Oradour-sur-Glane is a small town in the centre of France where, on 10 June 1944, the Der Führer Regiment of the 2nd Waffen-SS Panzer Division Das Reich unexpectedly entered what was then a village with little over 650 inhabitants, rounded up all who were present at the time, massacred them, looted the houses and shops and then set fire to the town before continuing on their way north to join other German troops defending their position in Normandy. Only one person survived the attack, 64 were killed. With minimal intervention, the village has been left as a memorial ever since.

Place des Martyrs-Juifs-du-Vélodrome-d’Hiver

The Vélodrome d’hiver was the first permanent indoor cycle track built in France, 1909. In 1942 the French Police used the stadium to hold Jewish men, women and children rounded up in Paris on 16 and 17 July. Known as the Rafle du Vélodrome d’Hiver, commonly shortened to Rafle du Vel’ d’Hiv, police records list 13,152 individuals were rounded up in the mass raid on Jews in the city. They were held here for days in appalling conditions before being sent on to internment camps. The stadium was destroyed in 1959, and today plaques and memorials marks the site of the Velodrome.

Resistance and Deportation History Centre

Opened in 1992, the Centre d’histoire de la résistance et de la déportation is a museum that chronicles the work of the French resistance and the deportation of Jews from France to the death camps in the east during the Second World War. The museum is housed in a former military health school. From the spring of 1943 the school was occupied by the German Gestapo. It was here that the notorious Gestapo chief for Lyon, Klaus Barbie, tortured members of the resistance. Including the first president of the National Council of the Resistance, Jean Moulin.