“Down this road, on a summer day in 1944 … The soldiers came. Nobody lives here now. They stayed only a few hours. When they had gone, a community which had lived for a thousand years … was dead.
This is Oradour-sur-Glane, in France. The day the soldiers came, the people were gathered together. The men were taken to garages and barns, the women and children were led down this road … and they were driven … into this church. Here, they heard the firing as their men were shot. Then . . . they were killed too. A few weeks later, many of those who had done the killing were themselves dead, in battle.
They never rebuilt Oradour. Its ruins are a memorial. Its martyrdom stands for thousand upon thousand of other martyrdoms in Poland, in Russia, in Burma, China, in a World at War …”
As narrated by Laurence Olivier in the 1970’s documentary series, “A World at War”.
I remember promising some time ago, that I would write a full blog post about our trip to Oradour-sur-Glane, earlier this year, but I never got round to it. One of those reasons is that I found the place so profoundly upsetting to visit, that I struggled to find the motivation to document what I saw and how I felt. I read about what happened there, prior to our visit, and I read a lot more besides after, and I still can’t come to terms with the inhumanity of it. Yet, somehow now, on this particular day, in these troubled and complicated times, it’s story seems more relevant than ever.
For all we already know about the size and scale of the Holocaust, almost the bigger the number of the dead, the more de-sensitised we are to it, it’s vastness of scale somehow giving rise to it’s incomprehensibility. This however, is the very human story of the almost complete annihilation of an entire town, a loss of 642 souls, many of them children, and why we must never forget their story. I should add, that this post contains details of Nazi atrocities that are utterly abhorrent, so you may wish to read on with caution.
Our visit to Oradour, began with a tour of the visitors centre. This was a relatively modern building commissioned under President Francois Mitterand, and opened by Jacques Chirac in 1999.
There were no photographs allowed in this part of the memorial, but the photos and media presentations of the very real people that were just going about their normal every day existence were really brought to life here. It also really helped set the scene for the horror to come by understanding the events of the previous days, and how such a thing came to pass.
On June 6th, 175,000 allied troops landed on the Normandy beaches, flanked by 10,000 bombers and other warplanes, plus 600 warships. (By the end of the month nearly 1 million allies will be on French soil).
On June 8th, German troops are retreating from coastal positions in Italy.
The 2nd SS Panzer division was stationed just North of Toulouse, and received orders to march North to help stem the Allied advance.
On the days leading up to the 10th June, the Germans troops, aware of the advancing Allied forces, marched across the towns and prefectures of rural France, leaving a trail of destruction. Local pockets of defiance began to break out, led by the French resistance fighters. These were quelled with an over zealous amount of force, reports of the perpetrators being hung from lampposts in the main streets of the towns for example – place names I recognised as being local to us. A tired, footsore, battle-weary band of soldiers, caring little for protocol, out for retribution.
Early on the morning of the 10th June 1944, Regimental Commander Diekmann, informed his counterpart Otto Weidinger that he had received word that an SS officer was being held prisoner by the resistance in Oradour-Sur-Vayres, a nearby village. There is some conjecture, that the massacre which followed was just simply a question of mistaken identity, one villages name sounding much like another.
As, you leave the visitors centre and enter the “Martyred Village” as it is referred throughout the exhibit, signs call for you to remember.
It was a bright sunny day, for which I was very thankful, the wild flowers and the blue skies, just helping the smallest of amounts, to soften the broken stones.
We didn’t speak for some minutes, it just didn’t seem appropriate, the atmosphere didn’t encourage discussion of any sort. You just, well, take it in.
Firstly, it’s not a particularly small village. The main street, with the remains of it’s bakers, and dentists, and garage, and forge. Iron bedframes, bicycles, sewing machines, bread ovens, even a car. Rusting, where they stood, in the green grass, with the wildflowers and the blue sky.
On the morning of the 10th June, 200 men from Diekmann’s battalion, sealed off the village and gathered everyone to assemble with their identity papers. Including some poor unfortunate souls that were not village residents, but just cycling through.
The men were split into 6 groups and led to barns and sheds where machine guns were already set up. Witness accounts tell us that they were deliberately shot in the legs, then covered in fuel and the barns set ablaze. 190 Frenchmen died.
The women and children, had meanwhile been corralled in the church, which already had an incendiary device positioned beside it. They would have heard the shots that killed their menfolk, before the device was ignited. You can see the melted church bell the heat was so intense. 2 women and a child managed to escape a rear window, the younger woman and child were shot, the older woman, 47 year old Marguerite Rouffanche, was also wounded but hid in pea bushes overnight until her discovery and rescue the following morning.
247 women and 205 children were killed in the attack, the nursery school being almost directly opposite the church.
I stood in that church, just near what remained of the altar and an overwhelming sadness took over. Those stones saw such things, I stood in the corner and cried. It was a crushing, nauseating feeling of absolute abject despair, I haven’t felt such a thing before or since. I wanted to immediately leave and get out but my feet didn’t want to move. Even with little by way of a roof remaining, the minute I stepped outside I gulped in some air. This feeling stayed with me for the next few hours, I just couldn’t shake it. It made me wonder how the inhabitants of the new village of Oradour-Sur-Glane, living cheek by jowl with the ghosts of it’s past must feel. I couldn’t live there.
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There was a report of a baby being found in one of the bread ovens, and a much later account by an American airman, only made public in 2011 under the Freedom of Information Act, makes reference to the crucifixion of a baby in an un-named village that likely was Oradour-Sur-Glane.
After the war, General Charles de Gaulle decreed that the village should never be rebuilt, but should remain as a memorial to the cruelty of the Nazi occupation.
I am very privileged, that in my lifetime, I have known relative peace. Certainly our forces have been deployed overseas in various conflicts, but the very real threat of enemy soldiers advancing across our green and pleasant land hasn’t been a terror I’ve had to endure. My father or husband weren’t taken from me through national service, no black-outs or evacuation, no being roused from my sleep in the middle of the night to hurry into a communal air raid shelter. I am beyond grateful for the sacrifice of the many people that it took to make this a reality. But what stands at the very core of this peace?. For me, it’s the union of likeminded European nations, that vowed to never let history repeat itself, and that an attack on a member nation would be seen as an attack on all of Europe. This is the cornerstone of what the EU was brought about to achieve, and is it perfect? Absolutely not, but you bring about reform and transparency by being part of the discussion, not by spouting some guff about bent bananas and high-tailing it back to the good old white cliffs. In these times of narcissistic despots and misogynistic psychopaths with nuclear capabilities, would it not be nice for someone to have our back?
I really do feel like we have lost sight of what’s important a little perhaps.
One of my Grandfathers was wounded in the battle of the Somme, another was wounded in Galipoli. A great Uncle was wounded on the Normandy beaches on D-day.
Think of how different our lives would be today if they, and the many like them, had not prevailed.
“Beyond twilight comes a beautiful night, the kind of night the weary dream of. And to all my good friends, to those who have already gone to the back side of the mirror, I bow my head”.
Pramoedya Ananta Toer