During the 13th century there were a group of people in Southwestern France known as the Cagots. The Cagots were of an unknown origin with speculation that they may have descended from the Visigoths who conquered the Romans during the 4th century, or the offspring of Moors who once occupied this region. No one knows the exact reason why, but the Cagots were deemed untouchable and cast off to the malarial side of the river. They were not allowed to walk around with bare feet like the other peasants could, leading to speculation that they had webbed toes. Because of this, they had to display a goose foot on their lapel so that everyone knew they were ‘different.’ When they went to church to worship, they had to enter through a side door, had their own separate font and had to take communion on long wooden spoons so the clergymen would not have to get near them. Because of the severe rules placed upon them, the only trades they were allowed to practice were to be the drawers of water and the hewers of wood. All of these restrictions were placed upon the Cagots from the 13th century all the way until the time of the French Revolution (1789-1799). Still, not much is known of them as they were so ashamed of who they were because of how they were treated, they destroyed their own history. We drove from church to church in all of the small towns of Southwestern France trying to figure out if the side entrances were the ones once used by them, and even if they weren’t, it still opened a door to history and got us thinking about the unfortunate circumstances of an entire group of people.
Gurs Internment Camp
Also in the Southwest region of France, but years after the demise of the Cagots, there was an internment camp built in 1939. This camp was built to house Spaniards fleeing Franco, Basque nationalists, German Jewish, gypsies, homosexuals and many more. Upon arriving at the camp, the initial wave of sadness falls upon you as you see the railroad tracks leading directly to the camp. The images of people packed in train cars not knowing where they were going, wondering what the fear was like in their minds or if some of them knew they may not ever come back, was too much to bear. As we walked around silently looking at the gravestones of those who were lost, you couldn’t help but wonder who they could’ve been. Did they ever know what it felt like to be in love? Did they experience the world before they were taken too soon? One man was eighty five years old when he passed away in that camp, having lived his whole life only to perish in such a manner. There was also a little baby named Ella who never got to experience life because of where and when she was born. In 1946, after 63,929 were interred there, the camp was closed, but the memories of what happened to these people will be etched upon our hearts forever.
Since time immemorial, the Basque people have met at the oak tree of Guernica to create their fueros, which are basic codes by which their people lived their lives accordingly. When kings and queens of the past needed the help of the Basque people, they would meet at the oak tree here. On April 26, 1937, Francisco Franco had the town of Guernica destroyed through an aerial bombardment with the help of German and Italian troops. Most of the people in this quaint little town had never seen airplanes or tanks, so the confusion and fear they must have felt upon seeing something so foreign to them must have been palpable. Unfortunately for the people of this town and the surrounding areas, the bombing took place on market day. All of the people from the nearby villages had gathered in the town to sell and purchase goods, which meant many innocent civilians lost their lives. Pablo Picasso created a work of art in memory of this fateful occurrence, and through his genius, was able to encapsulate the chaos and tragedy of this event in history. The oak tree remains, in part anyhow, but it was one of the only pieces of this town still standing. Seeing Guernica today, eighty one years later, it speaks to life being resilient. Nature rebuilds itself, and in the end we realize that we all want the same things out of life. We all want to survive and to love and to be a part of something greater than ourselves. The reason for visiting the scenes of our haunting past is so that we remember what people gave to stand up for what they believed in, or that innocents are casualties of war, or that people were, and still are, persecuted for their lineage. Those that were lost are never forgotten, and their sacrifice may bring a greater appreciation for life in knowing what others had to go through so that we may flourish in our own lives.