The Cité de la Muette (the La Muette complex, a housing development) was situated in the district of Drancy, 12 kilometers northeast of Paris, and served as an internment camp for 67,000 of the 75,000 mostly foreign Jews deported from France during the Second World War, before they were sent to death camps in Poland. The land for this development had been acquired in 1925 by the Seine Low Cost Housing Office (Les Habitations bon marché de la Seine). By 1935, the complex comprised five fourteen-story towers (which were torn down after the Second World War), some four-story buildings that were built perpendicular to the towers, and a U-shaped construction which formed the camp itself. A total of 925 housing units had been planned, though they were never occupied before the war, except by the gardes mobiles (soldiers). As a matter of fact, the Drancy Gendarmerie (local headquarters of the gendarmes, a military corps of policemen) remained at La Muette until 1976. The whole complex was located near three train stations, of which two had big eastbound switching yards. Nevertheless, the Drancy camp had not originally been designed as a central element in the implementation of the processes of internment, deportation and finally, of destruction of the Jews of France.
Used to detain Communists during the “Phony War” (September 1939 - May 1940), the La Muette complex then became a “camp for interned British civilians,” known as Frontstalag 111. British and Canadian civilians were brought there, as well as around one thousand French civilians repatriated from Germany. From August 20, 1941, the La Muette complex received 4,232 Jews who had been rounded up in the eastern neighborhoods of Paris, particularly the 11th arrondissement (district), during a three-day operation ordered by the Germans and instigated by Theodor Dannecker, the SS Judenreferent (a Nazi intelligence officer in charge of a special unit responsible for deporting Jews). These detainees were men between the ages of 18 and 50, including Poles, Romanians and Italians, as well as many Frenchmen, 40 of whom were lawyers.
Charles Magny, the Préfet of the Seine (the civil servant responsible for administering this region), had his men carry out the arrests under the supervision of the German military, without prior authorization from the Vichy government. Magny had only been notified of the internment operation the day before, and so it was totally improvised. As of August 26, Vice-Admiral François Bard, the Préfet de Police (head of the police service for the Paris area), and General Guilbert, in charge of the Gendarmerie for the Paris area, organized military discipline within the camp, forbidding the detainees from communicating with the outside world. The following day, a German counselor, Lippert, arrived at the Drancy camp. He met his first commander, Lombard, a Gendarmerie captain, and police captain Jean François, who was Deputy Director of the Prefecture of Police. Lippert gave the latter responsibility for supplies and maintenance of the camp. Jean François authorized detainees to receive or send one letter, written on a card, per fortnight, and to receive one bundle of clean clothes and 50 Francs per month.
More than a year after the Drancy camp had become a hub for the deportation of Jews from France, its management was completely reorganized. This comprehensive change in camp life was fully established when SS Captain Aloïs Brunner’s Sonderkommando (literally, "special unit"; a term generally used to designate a work unit of Nazi death camp prisoners forced to facilitate the killing process) took charge of it on June 18, 1943. Brunner was amongst the few men who took their orders directly from Adolf Eichmann. As of July 2, the role of the French gendarmes was reduced to guarding the La Muette complex from the outside. From then on, it was officially called a “concentration camp.”
Unlike the management of an exceptional situation, running an established concentration camp called for actual political will (Peschanski, 2002). Camps generated a separate society, with its own laws, which constitute a system of its own. Following its own, specific dynamics, the new administration of the Drancy camp signaled the end of the earlier “internment” experiment, from July 1943 onwards. Dannecker had already made the General Union of Jews in France (Union générale des Israélites de France or UGIF, a grouping of all Jewish assistance initiatives imposed by the Vichy Government and the German occupying forces) responsible for providing supplies to deportation convoys, when Aloïs Brunner forced it to take on the role of sole supplier of the Drancy camp. The UGIF was made the camp’s exclusive supplier of foodstuffs, which were paid for by the Prefecture of the Seine region, based on a daily count of the detainees (Laffitte, 2003). Previously, supplies had been brought in by the Secours national (National Aid), and the UGIF was only responsible for a complementary contribution. Under the new system, the deportees no longer had their heads shaved, they were allowed to smoke, Jewish religious services and instruction were authorized within the camp, and the infirmary was repainted.
Brunner ordered 5,000 yellow armbands bearing a bilingual inscription, Service d’ordre juif – Jüdischer Ordnungsdienst (“Jewish Order Service”) from the UGIF. This internal police force was descended from the M.S., or “Surveillance Members”, a service the detainees had been allowed to organize in August 1942 in order to keep order themselves, and thus, to avoid suffering the brutality and thievery of the Jewish Affairs Police and the French gendarmes during searches. The searching of luggage and clothing took place upon arrival at the camp, or before the detainees were deported from it. Aloïs Brunner entrusted the new Jewish Order Service with the search inventory register books, of which the stubs served as receipts for the valuables confiscated from detainees. Brunner had forbidden the use of money within the camp, and he had the prisoners issued receipts redeemable in zlotys, the Polish currency, before they were deported. This strategy to fool the victims had already been tested on the Jews of Thessaloniki, in Greece.