Raymond Gurême (1925-2020), a life of struggles


Tudo o que voa é ave.
Desta janela aberta
A pena que se eleva é mais suave
E a folha que plana é mais liberta.

Nos seus braços azuis o céu aquece
Todo o alado movimento.
É no chão que arrefece
O que não pode andar no firmamento.

Outro levante, pois, ciganos!
Outra tenda sem pátria mais além!
São os sonhos, também…

Miguel Torga

The Roma, Gypsy, Tsingani, Sinti, Manush, or by the many other names that they are known, are a people who have defied State authority in ways that find no obvious political expression (in any movement or ideology). And yet, they have resisted – even in the face of the most grotesque racist violence, culminating in the holocaust of Roma during the nazi regime in germany -, and in this, they inspire.

I recall a gypsy saying of my childhood – which in fact I do not know for certain to be a “gypsy saying” – which I have held to ever since: “should there come a day when we can no longer travel, then the end of the world is upon us.”

Raymond Gurême, a life of struggles

(from paris-luttes.info, 14/06/2021)

Part of the Voyageurs/Travellers community, a former resistance fighter and tireless activist, Raymond Gurême died on May 24 at the age of 94. Of Manouche origin, he spent his life fighting against injustices and putting into practice this phrase that he repeated over and over again: “Always standing, never on my knees”.

Born in 1925, Raymond Gurême was only 15 years old when he and his family were arrested in the early hours of October 4, 1940, in Petit-Couronne, near the port of Rouen. Two French gendarmes, who came on motorbikes, summon them to follow. Raymond Gurême will say in Interdit aux nomades, the book he wrote with Isabelle Ligner: “It was on this occasion that I learned that the chickens come home to roost at dawn.”

On the same day, a German ordinance decreed the internment of Gypsies in the occupied zone, in camps under the responsibility of the French police. The last interned Gypsies were not released until 1946, two years after the Liberation. This is all the more reason to affirm that the internment of the nomads was indeed the result of a desire on the part of the French authorities.

Thus, on April 6, 1940, six months before the German ordinance, President Albert Lebrun signed a decree banning the movement of nomads for the duration of the war and throughout French territory and placed them under house arrest. As for the anthropometric notebook, an instrument for recording nomadic populations, it had been in force since 1912.

The Gurême and other families were initially imprisoned in the Darnétal camp. This is where Raymond and his family had to give up everything they owned: the trailers, the circus tent and the movie theatre apparatuses. Until then, the Gurême family lived off the circus and the small travelling cinema with which they crossed the roads of France.

On October 4, 1940, when they arrived at the “nomads internment camp” of Linas-Monthléry, after long hours of travel in cattle wagons, they had nothing left and they discovered with stupefaction the inhumane conditions in which they were about to live.

In the shacks, writes Raymond in his book, there are “no blankets, no table, no chairs, no heating system either.” The sanitary conditions are dire, people get sick on a regular basis and some do not survive.

The camp is guarded by about sixty French police and gendarmes, who regularly abuse their power and make the internees life an ordeal.

On July 26, 1941, Raymond escaped the camp for the first time with his brother. They were denounced and arrested on August 14. But Raymond, who will end the war with ten escapes to his credit, escapes again on October 5, 1941. He is then in isolation and it is his extraordinary flexibility, acquired at his earliest age with the circus, which allows him to free himself from his handcuffs, “as sharp as a knife.” Raymond’s hands will always bear the scars of this escape. Also thanks to his acrobatic skills, he manages to reach the top of a tree: he spends the whole night there, freezing cold, while the police and gendarmes search for him on the ground. In the early hours of the morning, he descends from his tree and runs away from the camp for good. He reaches Brittany on foot and succeeds in getting hired on farms.

Between the end of 1941 and the beginning of 1942, he made several trips between Brittany and Linas-Monthléry to bring food to his family, still locked in the camp. Raymond’s second escape is not in the records, and the guards continued to read his name on the roll call. When they said “Raymond Gurême”, his sisters would then sing this song which they had written in honor of their brother, and which Raymond had taken to singing during his testimonies:

Ce qu’aucun homme n’a pu faire,
Un gamin de quinze ans l’a montré
Que ce n’était pas une affaire
De se sauver tout en étant enchaîné.
C’était pour une bagatelle
Qu’on l’avait mis au cagibi
Mais sa colère était telle
Que le soir il est parti,
Parti de Linas-Monthléry.
Les gendarmes se mirent à ses trousses,
Mais ils n’ont pas pu le rattraper
Ils sont revenus tous bredouilles,
Le chef avait l’air d’une andouille !
Et si Dieu le veut bien,
C’est pas aujourd’hui, ni demain,
Que nous reverrons notre frangin!

What no man could do,
A fifteen year old kid showed it
That it was no big deal
To save himself while being chained.
It was for a trifle
That we had put him in the closet
But his anger was such
That in the evening he left,
Left Linas-Monthléry.
The gendarmes followed him,
But they couldn’t catch up to him
They all came back empty-handed,
The chef looked like an idiot!
And if God is willing,
It’s not today, nor tomorrow,
That we will see our brother again!

In April 1942, his family as well as all the internees of Linas-Monthléry were transferred to the camp of Mulsanne, in the Sarthe, then on August 3, 1942 to that of Montreuil-Bellay, in Maine-et-Loire. Montreuil-Bellay was the largest internment camp for “nomads” among those set up during this period, and his family did not come out until September 1943.

Meanwhile, Raymond was arrested by the police and taken to a reformatory. After escaping again, he was escorted back there and then managed to find a job in a hospital. He then meets a wounded man who proposes that he steal a German truck on behalf of the Resistance. Raymond accepts and succeeds in his mission: he has just joined the Resistance, he is 16 years old. But the hospital director, who saw him behind the wheel of the truck, denounces him.

Once again on the run, Raymond is picked up and sent to Angers prison, where there are daily executions. He was then transferred to the Troyes military prison, where he remained for many weeks before being sent to Germany, to the Hedderneim disciplinary camp. Guarded by the SD (SS intelligence and law enforcement service), this forced labor camp offers prisoners a daily life of deprivation and violence. Taking advantage of a bombardment, Raymond manages to escape with two comrades. They are arrested by members of the Hitler Youth and transferred to an even harsher camp: the high discipline camp in Oberürsel.

In his book, Raymond recounts the following anecdote:

One day, I was doing earthworks and a German guard kept coming up on my back, shouting: “Schnell! Schnell!” I was working in slow motion on purpose and said, “Shut up.”

As the guard did not speak French, this little game lasted at least a week. In the camp, my friends nicknamed me “Shut up”. But an interpreter warned me: “I have to translate for him and it will be hard for your registration number!” When the guard, a tall, big guy, learned that I had been making fun of him for days, his reaction was quick: he knocked me out with a butt on the head and left me for dead, pissing blood. I had a huge hole in the back of my head. Two friends carried me to my hut. I did not regain consciousness until the next morning. My two comrades took care of me (…) One of my friends folded a piece of wire in half and he used it like pliers to extract the pieces of broken bone from my skull. (…) Once again, I had a narrow escape.

But Raymond persisted and continued to work as slowly as possible in protest, which earned him a baton in the face and a smashed nose. In the spring of 1944, Raymond lost one eye to a bomb that killed several of his comrades who worked a few meters from him.

Some time later, Raymond meets a train conductor who regularly traveled between Paris and Frankfurt and whose merchandise is unloaded by the detainees. On June 15, 1944, Raymond managed to escape with the help of the conductor by hiding in a pile of coal of the locomotive. He thus manages to reach France. Raymond will write in his book: “If this railway worker, who was part of the Resistance like many of his colleagues, had not brought me back, I think I would have been sent to the crematorium.”

After returning to Paris, Raymond wasted no time in joining the Resistance. He joined the FFI and participated in the liberation of Paris. Like Raymond, many Voyageurs played an important role in the Resistance and in the Liberation, but their participation has always been ignored. Moreover, while France was liberated, the internment measures in the camps for “nomads” were extended until 1946: the last “nomadic” internees imprisoned in the Alliers camp, in Angoulême, would not be released until at the end of May 1946, almost two years after the Liberation …

Raymond remains without news of his parents and siblings for eight long years, not even knowing if they are still alive. One day, while in Paris for work, he meets a Belgian fairground man who tells him that his family lives in Belgium. Raymond gets on his bike and rides day and night for four hundred kilometres and having no more inner tubes must finish the trip on foot.

Raymond recounts his reunion in his book:

About two kilometres from Vielsam, I saw a young woman with a basket under her arm. Her walk seemed familiar to me. I turn around. She did too.

I shouted, “Doll! And she at the same time: “Raymond”. She ran to throw herself into my arms, let go of the basket, dropping all her merchandise on the road. It was my little sister Marie-Rose. (…)

I cried like a kid. I had dreamed of this moment for so long. (…)

We left together towards the caravan in which my family lived. It was ten o’clock in the morning. My mother was outside. My father too (…). When he saw me approaching, my father stood on the edge of the trailer to absorb the shock. But my mother didn’t have this reflex and she fell to the ground! A merry scramble ensued. My brothers and sisters ran towards me. I kissed the first one who came. I kissed my father, then my mother, who got up. We celebrated for three or four days.

Raymond’s parents have nothing left. The post-war period is terrible for the Voyageurs, who lost everything when they were arrested and received no financial compensation when they left the camps. It wasn’t until 2009, nearly seventy years after the event and twenty-seven years after his first request, that Raymond finally received his “political internship card.”

It was not until 2010, on the National Day in memory of the victims of racist and anti-Semitic crimes of the French State, that the Secretary of State for Defense and Veterans Affairs Hubert Falco for the first time officially recognized that “nomads” had been interned for racial reasons on French soil, thanks to the assistance of the French authorities.

And it is not until 2016 that the first national tribute will be paid by the French government to the nomads interned in Montreuil-Bellay.

But these belated tributes cannot make us forget the persecution suffered by the Voyageurs after the war; a persecution they still suffer today. The lack of consideration of the French authorities and administration towards them is perfectly reflected in the hardships Raymond and his family endured throughout his life.

Since his installation on land in Saint-Germain-lès-Arpajon in 1968, opposite the Linas Monthléry autodrome where his family had been locked up, Raymond has never ceased to suffer the distrust by the people and the authorities towards his community.

As soon as they arrived, a petition was launched for them to leave and even today the green spaces of Île-de-France are increasing the number of proposals in this direction. But as usual, Raymond resisted and his family still lives on the land: at the entrance, a sign reading “forbidden to nomads”. A sign circled in red, made by the French state, that Raymond found in 2010, at the edge of the same field where he and his family were stationed in 1940 before being arrested.

As for the police and the gendarmerie, they will carried out a real persecution of Raymond and his family during all these years. Raymond no longer counted the prosecutions and charges of “contempt and rebellion” and “theft” which he has consistently been the target of until very recently.

So, on September 23, 2014, when he was 89 years old, two policemen arrived at his home and asked him to get out of his trailer to carry out a search. Raymond refuses and is then severely beaten by the police. During his visit to the doctor for police violence, he noticed bruises on the forearm and thorax as well as bruises on the skull and shoulder. He lodged a complaint against the police but the case will be dismissed.

Raymond testified shortly after his assault:

It made me think back to the trip from the Brétigny station to the Linas-Montlhéry camp that the French police forced us to do on foot with batons and sticks when I was 15 – on November 27, 1940. I saw the faces of my parents and my brothers and sisters, beaten like me, without reason, by the French police. We took so many hits that day! We stopped counting them. In the end, you don’t feel anything anymore, the pain is so strong.

More than seventy years later, history is repeating itself and Raymond’s mistrust of the authorities is more than justified. In this regard, he says in his book:

The turn taken in my relationship to authority and to those who are supposed to embody order, the police and the gendarmes, goes back to my arbitrary internment in Linas-Montlhéry. The police and the gendarmes were then responsible for applying unworthy measures against the French citizens that we were. And the majority of them did so without hesitation.

After 1945, neither my father’s status as a survivor of the Great War, nor our internment, nor my involvement in the Resistance, was recognized.

However, my family and I continued to be treated like good-for-nothings and chicken thieves by these same police and gendarmes.

Raymond testified for the first time in public in 2004, during the general assembly of the Departmental Association of Voyageurs (ADGV – Association départementale gens du voyage). Since then, he has continued to tell his story, especially to young people he meets regularly in middle and high schools. He traveled across France and Europe to deliver a committed discourse in which he urged us to defend our rights and remain vigilant in the face of injustices, a struggle that he will continue to lead until the end of his life.

For several years now, Raymond has been going to Auschwitz every summer for the international youth meetings “Dikh he na bister” (“Look and don’t forget” in the Romani language), to commemorate the “Genocide of the Gypsies”. During these trips, Raymond will become the hero of an entire community, tirelessly denouncing “anti-Gypsyism” and calling for brotherhood.

Since his death, many tributes have come to us from Poland, Spain, Italy, Scotland and all the other countries where Raymond has met the communities of Voyageurs, Roma, Gypsies, Gypsies, Sintis, Kales and everywhere the world remembers this man imbued with extraordinary strength and humanity.

A tribute will be paid to this great activist for freedom on the last weekend of November in Brétigny, during the march which has taken place every year since 2010 and which commemorates the internment of Gypsies and Yoyageurs at the camp of Linas-Montlhéry.

Paying homage to Raymond also means continuing and intensifying our struggles against all forms of injustice that we encounter. The strength he instilled in us will continue to accompany us and allow us to move forward on the same path from which he has never strayed: that of freedom.

Eight days before his death, Raymond was still present, with his fist raised, in front of the basilica of Saint-Denis during the festivity of the gypsy insurrection. A symbol of the struggle that he will have waged to the end: “Always standing, never on my knees”.

Leny Mauduit

An excellent documentary dedicated to Raymond Gurême (in french), “ils ont eu la graisse, ils n’auront pas la peau”, to be viewed at vimeo …

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