Saturday, September 4, 2010

Compiègne : deliverance and deportation

NOTE: The following blog post is from the book "Parisian Postcards : Snapshots of Life in Paris" available at, and Amazon.UK

Just an hour by car from Paris is the lovely town of Compiègne nestled along the banks of the Oise river. The history of Compiègne gave the world a glimpse of world peace followed by perhaps the darkest time in the history of mankind.

Like many towns in France we find a château. The one in Compiègne was the royal residence of King Louis XV and after the French revolution it became the imperial palace of Napoléon the first. However, a royal presence had not been new to Compiègne. Saint Wilfrid was consecrated Bishop of York in 665; followed by the crowning of Odo, Count of Paris and king of the Franks, in 888. The town became prominent again in the Hundred Years War when Joan of Arc traveled to assist the inhabitants of the town; only to be captured by the Burgundians; then sold to the English. This was in 1430. Two hundred years later, Marie de Medici was exiled in Compiègne until she was able to escape to Brussels in 1631.

In 1380, king Charles V constructed a fortress at Compiègne followed by numerous enlargements. Louis XV was the next to significantly renovate the building when he commissioned the architect, Ange-Jacques Gabriel, to redesign the existing château. The construction on this project lasted from 1751 until 1788. A second major renovation occurred in 1810 under Napoléon and in 1870 le Château de Compiègne became a national museum. Today, we find a classic, stately structure surrounded by sumptuous gardens, linear walkways and housing not just one but two museums.

In one museum, you can enjoy the paintings of Daumier, Carpeaux and Winterhalter as well as souvenirs and clothing of the Empress and the Imperial Prince. What is absolutely enthralling is the National Museum of Locomotion and Tourism. This is the second museum and it houses an amazing collection of horse-drawn vehicles, cars, sleighs and bicycles. The imagination and beauty that went into building the sleighs and carriages is inspirational. You can learn about the evolution of the bicycle and see the first electric car that was built in 1888. (No, I am not kidding. There really was an electric car built in 1888.)

Compiègne is located on the Oise River and it is home to the largest National Reserve Forest in France providing a multitude of outdoor activities including great hiking trails and pristine forests.

However, what comes to mind for most French citizens when Compiègne is mentioned, is the signing of the Armistice between Germany and the Allies on the 11th of November 1918. This is the date and place that officially ended World War 1, and was a momentous occasion of joy and relief. Unfortunately, it was closely followed by a long period of grieving and healing. Whatever positive emotions were generated on that 11th of November, were erased with the pain and the humiliation when the Second Compiègne, or Armistice, was signed between the defeated France in Le Francport and Nazi Germany in 1940. The original armistice of 1918 was signed in a railroad carriage. Hitler demanded that the second armistice be signed in that same carriage. This signing occurred just 22 years later with only the seats being swapped.

The railroad carriage was an ominous sign for what would become of not only the Jews of France but also political prisoners and civilian Americans and Russians. At Compiègne, a deportation camp was set up where the Vichy government progressively handed over to the Gestapo first political prisoners; then foreign Jews and finally the French Jews. From Compiègne these individuals and families would be deported to concentration camps in the Third Reich and in Eastern Europe. In tribute to those deported a memorial and museum has been established called the Mémorial de l’internement et de la déportation - Camp de Royallieu. Three of the original buildings have been conserved to present expositions, videos and detailed information on the deportation. The exhibit includes pictures of detainees, their individual histories, their possessions and their writings. The site is home to a sobering memorial in which the names of all persons are inscribed who had passed through the camp. At the conclusion of the visit there is a chapel for reflection on what is a very moving experience.

After visiting Compiègne, I left hopeful that we can learn from history but saddened when confronted with current events that blatantly continue to ignore the lessons that have been taught throughout history.

Website for the Campiège Palace, Museums -
Hours - open every day except Tuesday from 10:00 to 6:00
Website for the Memorial and Museum -
Hours - open every day except Tuesday from 10:00 to 6:00
By car from Paris - one hour on autoroute A1, exit 9
By train from Paris - departure from SNCF Gare du Nord

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