Montluc, the Gestapo Prison of Lyon

We are in the heart of what was Vichy France, and the home of the Butcher of Lyon.

Montluc prison was used by the Gestapo. In the museum today you can read the stories of some of the tortured and murdered witnesses, some of which you will see below, which I translated from panels in the exhibit.

The Gestapo in Lyon was lead by the infamous Klauss Barbie, the Butcher of Lyon. He was directly responsible for the death of 14,000 people, and the brutal torture of thousands. Forty years later, in May 1987, he was extradited from Bolivia, to which he had escaped with the help of US counter intelligence, judged for crimes against humanity and sentenced to life imprisonment. By then France had outlawed the death penalty. He died a few years later of cancer.

The Gestapo was first established at the Terminus hotel near Perrache station,  then in the premises of the School of Military Health Services on Avenue Berthelot and finally,  after the bombing of May 26, 1944, at 35 Place Bellecour. The torture took place In these locations, not at the prison.

Violence governed the relationships between prisoners and guards, and the days were punctuated by summons for interrogation, where torture was used to obtain confessions and information.  Internees also were subject to deportation and execution. There were few bright spots in their lives. One was their ability to form friendships, despite the prohibition against all communication between prisoners. Also there were links, if tenuous, between the prison and the outside world. Prisoners could receive letters and packages, before this practice was prohibited, as well as news of the Allied advance brought by new arrivals, saving many from falling into despair.

Since the November, 1942 invasion of the Vichy zone, the prison had been coveted by the Wehrmacht for its proximity to rail transport. On February 17, 1943, the prison was requisitioned by the Wehrmacht. As a result also of Nazi laws governing the occupied territory, the Wehrmacht (German army) administered prison was used to intern resistance fighters, hostages and Jews starting shortly after the requisition. Most prisoners were were arrested by the Gestapo, less frequently by the Militia. The prison served the entire southern zone. Vichy police could enter only to take charge of the bodies intended for the morgue.

Beginning in the summer of 1942 the Vichy government collaborated with the Nazis, who relied largely on the French police. The Resistance was hit hard starting in the spring of 1943 as the hunt for Jews intensified aswell.  In 1944 massacres and summary executions multiplied.

Period photo

The creation of the Militia by the Vichy regime in early 1943 augmented the threat against Jews and Resistance fighters.  A paramilitary group heir to the Legion of Combatants and the Service d’ordre  Legionnaire, the Militia was divided into five services bringing together nearly 300 people in Lyon under the direction of Joseph Lécussan. The Courts Martial of the Militia were created in early 1944 to judge individuals acting alone or in groups, arrested in the act of “murder” or other so called crimes.  In Lyon, this courts martial sat at Saint-Paul prison. It met 18 times in 1944. Forty-five of the 52 resistance fighters brought before the court martial were sentenced to death and executed.  On June 29, 1944,  more than 722 prisoners, incarcerated for acts of resistance, were handed over to the occupier.  All were to be deported to Dachau.

 Later in the summer of 1944, when the trains were disrupted by  incessant attacks by the Resistance, many Jewish and non-Jewish detainees were taken to  be shot.  A final convoy left Lyon on August 11, 1944 with more than six hundred detainees on board,  including more than 400 Jews. Eleven days later they reached Auschwitz-Birkenau.

 Jews experienced conditions of detention harsher than the other prisoners. They were held until they were shipped to death camps.  Over two thousand Jews were interned, singles and even entire families, sometimes only for one night, like the children of the Izieu colony.

One description of Montluc prison reads: “It was a long barracks, a kind of beached Nordic longship, the keel  in the air, in the prison yard with its cargo of broken down prisoners.  Eighteen windows, three-quarters of which were smeared with yellow paint, opened and closed in its flanks, under the command of the men of the Wermacht. Bedbugs swarmed by the  thousands.   We were almost constantly traversed by the quivering of their agile little legs. Two rows of tiered beds, narrow like ship’s berths,  between them a long passageway, covered with piles of laundry.”  

Statements from prisoners

Émile Terroine, from “The Gestapo jails, Memories of Montluc prison” Editions de la Guillotièn notes:

Imagine the fate of prisoners, and even more so of female prisoners, who live in cells of six,  eight and sometimes more on an area of ​​two meters by one meter eighty, …lukewarm water {presumably it was summer at that time –Ed} in a bucket, ten minutes out in the morning to go to the toilet, because if we used the bucket life would become impossible. Not able to spread out simultaneously, neither at night nor during the day, taking turns trying to sleep while curled up in improbable positions.

Lazare Gaillard

The Montluc diet is particularly harsh, as is the whole regime. We were only allowed ten minutes outside our crowded cell, in the morning around 9 a.m.  During these few minutes in the heat we have the right to wash ourselves or our laundry.  Every 15 days, this  morning outing is replaced by showers in the afternoon.  Every week we can shave in the corridor serving the cells. During these different exercises absolute silence is required.  The guards kept yelling “Silence! ” Sanctions consisted of deprivation of soup for three  or four days. From time to time we were searched.

Arrested by the Gestapo on July 22, 1943, the same evening I found myself in a cell  on the first floor of Fort Montluc. I have no memory of my arrival. No doubt the interrogation was tough, so I might not have been entirely conscious.  The cell I occupied for a month and a half had two bedsteads  separated by a short space and, at ground level, to the right of the entrance door an opening, closed by a small iron door, for the toilet. There was one advantage:  by climbing onto one of the bedsteads we could look through the skylight and  see, beyond the surrounding wall, the rue du Dauphiné and the gate of a factory. From Montluc, the antechamber of the unknown (1942-1944).

André Pedron

Here I am in prison…  Four whitewashed walls, absolutely bare, the concrete floor.  Opposite the door, at a height inaccessible to a man, a small window with seven bars.  In the corner, on the left, a small iron door;  I open it:  it is a cupboard, occupied by a bucket which will serve as a toilet.  Finally, under the window,  a bench whose total thickness does not exceed three centimeters.  Then, based on the length of my shoes, I measured the cell:  2 meters 10 by 1 meter 80. I estimated the height at around 3 meters, which  is about 12 cubic meters, just enough for one man.  There will be up to seven of us living in this cubbyhole.  In Montluc, the Anteroom of the Unknown (1942-1944).

Francis Gagneraud was a pharmacist. Demobilized from the French Navy in August 1940 he joined the ranks  of the Resistance.  On December 10, 1943, Gagneraud was arrested on Quai Perrache. Interned in the “Jewish barracks.,” he obtained pharmaceuticals gathered by his wife.  In the small room that he was able to annex he posted the words “Infirmary” on the door, with a red cross.  For six months, assisted by medical student André Roux, he treated many prisoners.  For the sickest, he managed to negotiate improvements in internment conditions and to

Francis Gagneraud was released on August 16, 1944.

Alban Grateau, in the summer of 1944:

The Germans who guarded us were more  gentle with us and one of them said to us: “Tonight, everyone leaves.”  Indeed, the rumor of our release circulated from cell to cell and throughout the premises where we were locked up.  The women sang La Marseillaise and La Madelon, no one intervened to silence them, hope was born.  Finally, we suddenly heard a broken voice speaking to us in the courtyard. It was General Chevallier and here are, verbatim, words he addressed to us:

 “My children, the Germans have left, they left me the keys. But for reasons that I cannot tell you,  we won’t open the doors until tomorrow morning.”

Barely had these words been spoken when broke down the solid doors, opening other doors for our comrades. Imagine this sudden release of seven hundred martyrs, the majority of whom had been  tortured and who all expected to die in firing squads.

Charles Déchelette writes:

 It was crazy enthusiasm: everyone was laughing, kissing, singing. We were all the more happy to live given that the enemy had left Lyon. It was then that young people who were very hungry – and  for good reason! – blew down the doors of the food stores. In the blink of an eye, everything was distributed.

The Montluc Prison website

Comment here (login optional)

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.