Dark past? Did I really type that? Indeed I did, and I did not have the 1983 defeat of Mats Wilander to Yannick Noah in mind, or when Rafael Nadal defeated Novak Djokovic last year (2012), or when Chris Evert beat Martina Navratilova in 1975. I had the Second World War in mind […]

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Dark past?

Did I really type that?

Indeed I did, and I did not have the 1983 defeat of Mats Wilander to Yannick Noah in mind, or when Rafael Nadal defeated Novak Djokovic last year (2012), or when Chris Evert beat Martina Navratilova in 1975.

I had the Second World War in mind because the stadium, constructed in 1928 and named for Roland Garros, French pioneer aviator and First World War ace and hero killed in an aerial combat in 1918, does have a dark past.

Roland Garros

Roland Garros

The story begins in September 1939 on the outbreak of war. Edouard Baladier (1884-1970) headed the government under President Albert François Lebrun (1871-1950).  As in the United Kingdom and as later when the United States of America also took up arms against Nazi Germany, there arose the problem here in France of where did the loyalty of foreigners residing in France lie? Many of the foreigners were German and had fled from the rising Nazism and many of those Germans were Jews.

That September PM Baladier opened several internment camps where foreigners – enemy aliens, as they were called  – were to be held under lock and key.

In Paris, one such internment camp or center (centre de rassemblement) was the Olympic Stadium of Colombes (Stade Colombes) in the north-west of the capital where in 1924 the Summer Olympics were held and in 1938 the Soccer World Cup.

Roland Garros Tennis Stadium was another.

A decree ordered foreigners to report to the police. They were to take along a two-day supply of food, and blankets, underwear and eating utensils.  Those who did not report were rounded up. Also rounded up were French nationals known for political views which opposed the center-right government.

Conditions in the camps were dreadful. The daily meal consisted of dry bread and pork liver paté despite that many of the internees were Jews. There was just one tap from where the internees could drink water and pails to serve as latrines stood in the corner of the stadium. It was like this in all the stadiums: 10,000 internees were at Colombes alone.

Hungarian-born and Jewish author and journalist Arthur Koestler (1905-1983) then living in Paris was rounded up as one such ‘enemy alien’ and interned at Roland Garros.

Arthur Koestler

Arthur Koestler

Koestler, in his 1941 book ‘Scum of the Earth’ leaves a most upsetting testimony of what it was like at Roland Garros.

He and about 600 other internees lived underneath the stadium’s stairways. They slept on straw.

‘We called ourselves the cave dwellers,’ he wrote.

The stadium had become filthy.

‘It smells of filth and excrement,’ he wrote.

Everywhere in the stadium they could see photos of tennis greats, for example Jean Borottra, one of the four French tennis greats who were affectionately known as the ‘Four Musketeers’.

The 1955 edition

The 1955 edition

In June 1940, France having capitulated to Nazi-Germany and France officially collaborating with the occupying Germans, Roland Garros Stadium ceased to be an internment camp.

Its ten months of shame having ended, the prisoners were either released or moved to other internment camps in France. The stadium having become too small for the hundreds of internees Arthur Koestler had already been transferred to the internment camp for ‘undesirable’ foreigners of Le Vernet in the French Pyrenees. There, he volunteered to join the French Foreign Legion, was accepted, and after France’s June defeat he deserted while on active duty in North Africa and fled to London.

I need not tell you the fate of the Jews who were still interned in the stadium once the German Nazis had taken over France.

France’s Internationaux de France, as the annual tennis tournament which was created in 1891 is called, was not held during the years of WW1 (1915-1919) and naturally also not in 1940 while the stadium was being used to house ‘enemy aliens’.

Once again though Roland Garros could be a tennis stadium again.

The first tournament was held in 1941 and until the end of the war and Nazi Germany’s defeat, the occupying Germans allowed only players from countries they were occupying or players from countries allied to Germany to participate.

In 1941 and 1942 the men’s singles winner was Bernard Destremau: French, he was of course a player from a country occupied by Germany. Then from 1943-1945 the men’s singles winner was Yvon Petra (1916-1984), also French and thus also qualified to participate.

Destremau (1917-2002) escaped from occupied France to Spain and from there he had made his way to North Africa and joined the Free French forces of General Charles de Gaulle based in London. In the 1960 he was elected as the Member of Parliament for Versailles and after having become Secretary of State for Foreign Affairs he ended his political career as ambassador to Argentina. He died in Paris.

Petra left France for the USA where he worked as instructor at a country club in Connecticut.  He returned to France and died in Paris.

The Roland Garros ‘French Open’ tournament is organised by the Fédération Française de Tennis (FFT). It refuses to speak of the tournament’s war years but denies that Jews were ever interned there having made the FFT either part of the Holocaust and Shoah or a collaborator. The FFT does not list the wins of Destremau and Petra.

Roland Garros Stadium is on the southern border of the Bois de Boulogne in Paris’s 16th arrondissement (district).

If you want to attend any of this year’s matches the closest Métro (underground railway) stations are  Porte d’Auteuil and Michel-Ange-Molitor. Or you can take any of the following buses: 22,32,52,62,72,123 and 241. There is also a taxi stand outside the stadium.

If you find what you’ve just read shocking, wait till I tell you about what the FFR (Fédération Française de Rugby) got up to during WW2.

Marilyn Z. Tomlins


  1. 3
    Benjamin G. Hill Says:

    was built in 1994. Its namesake, an international celebrity and the first true star of women’s tennis, won 31 major tournaments, including six French Open titles and six Wimbledon championships, between 1914 and 1926. Known as La Divine (“Divine One”) and La Grand Dame (“Great Lady”) of French tennis, she also won two Olympic gold medals in Antwerp in 1920. A bronze bas relief of Lenglen by the Italian sculptor Vito Tongiani stands over the east tunnel-entrance to the stadium. The trophy awarded each year to the French Open women’s singles champion is named La Coupe Suzanne Lenglen in her honor.

  2. 2
    Ross Gallor Says:

    Ah….That such a great piece of information, in fact i am also unaware of most of the facts you written. I am planning to go to watch this years French open final, and i expect more enjoyment and proud after knowing such glorious history behind the stad Rolland Garros. kudos to you..!!

  3. 1
    Diego T. Ball Says:

    The stadium that stages one of the world’s four major tennis tournaments was built in 1928, but the French men’s singles championship goes back much further than that. Originally reserved for members of French clubs, it was first held on the courts of Stade Français club in Paris in 1891. The women’s singles were added six years later, it was not until 1925 that the French Tennis Federation decided to open the event to the best foreign players. Thus, the French Internationals were born, and staged alternately at Stade Français and Racing Club de France until the Roland-Garros stadium came into being in 1928.

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