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The small town of Ain Benimatthar, formerly known as Berguent after a certain French colonel, was the site of a Vichy punishment camp. This camp was unique among the network of Vichy camps stretching along the railroad from Oran, Algeria, south through Morocco. Prisoners of these camps were dispatched from Vichy France for the purpose of working on a Trans-Saharan rail-road. According to historian Robert Satloff, Berguent was “the site of the only all-Jewish Vichy-era work camp in North Africa. At one point, 400 Jews were reportedly interned there. When an International Red Cross official visited the camp in July 1942, he counted 155; 90 percent of them had been volunteers to the French army or…to the Foreign Legion.”
How to get there: Driving from Oujda, the end of the train line in the East, south to Ain Benimatthar, the terrain is wide, arid and starkly mountainous. The town is a world apart from the glitzy tourist paths to Marrakech or Fes; this place is in the middle of nowhere, a bubble of history in eastern Morocco. Vichy buildings turned school: Ask the boys if they know where the former Vichy camp buildings are located. They may be excited to help; apparently the old French Vichy camp administration buildings had been turned into their school. Walk along the abandoned train tracks to the ruined train station. A five-minute walk further will bring you to a pink, new-looking building that wasis the Vichy camp administration location turned schoolhouse. This building was not where the prisoners slept, but more likely for the Vichy administrators. Satloff found a first personal account written by a Polish-Jewish survivor of the camp: “The camp consisted of holes in the ground or burrowed into the side of a hill. Each man had to provide his own shelter. All they found when they arrived were holes into which one man might wriggle on his stomach. They had to make larger caves in their own spare time.”
What remains: The physical remains of these memories come in the form of a run-down old train station, the trashed cemetery, and a strangelythe pink converted schoolhouse, between the wide blue sky and the shifting beige earth. All of this, along train tracks leading from distant Oran, southward.