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I knew this would be a difficult story to write. But after visiting the martyred village of Oradour-sur-Glane and learning about the horrific details of the WWII massacre of 642 innocent civilian men, women and children by the Nazi SS, I felt it was important to tell the story – a story that should be told again and again and again.
The massacre that occurred at Oradour-sur-Glane on June 10, 1944 was one of the worst Nazi war crimes in France. Even before World War II was over, Charles de Gaulle and the provisional French government declared the burned out remains of the town a historic site that would remain as it was, a memorial to all those that had perished. The entrance to the martyred town is now through a museum which recounts the dreadful story of the tragic events of that day using information from the handful of survivors.
From the witness accounts, Oradour-sur-Glane was a bucolic retreat in the rolling countryside of the Limousin area of France. The town had been able to stay isolated from the war and the resistance fighting that was going on around it. Saturday June 10, 1944, four days after the allied landing at Normandy, the town’s residents were going about their normal routines. The doctor was visiting patients. The barber was cutting hair. The baker was baking bread. The town hotel was full and serving lunch to Parisians who had left that city for what they believed would be a safer location. In fact, only about half the town population on that day were residents – others were refugees from the Alsace region of France, some were refugee communist Spaniards that had escaped after the Spanish civil war, and some were Jews hiding in what they believed would be a safe haven. Many children were also in town that day. Sadly, some of the children had been evacuated to Oradour-sur-Glane from other parts of France. And even though it was a Saturday, a large number of children from the surrounding hamlets were present because a health inspection had been scheduled.
Around 2 PM a convoy of German SS troops arrived at Oradour-sur-Glane. They encircled the town like a noose, and then systematically and methodically went through each home, tightening the noose, forcing all the inhabitants, including the sick and elderly, toward the large open space of the village green. Once there, the women and children were separated and herded into the church. Eventually, the 190 men were split up and moved into six locations. Then as if on cue, all the men were shot, mostly in the legs, and the buildings set on fire, burning most of the men alive. Somehow, 6 injured men were able to escape, 5 survived.
The fate for all the women and children in the church, including babies in prams, was just as brutal. The church had a seating capacity of 350, yet 247 women and 205 children had been forced into the confined space. First, some type of smoke bomb was set off, engulfing the interior of the church, choking all inside. Then the SS started shooting and setting off grenades. To complete the massacre, combustible materials were piled inside the church and set on fire, and anyone trying to escape was machine gunned to death. Only one woman managed to escape and survive, though it took her a year to recover from the injuries.
Finally, the SS troops looted and set the whole town on fire. Of the 642 bodies, only 52 could be identified and death certificates issued. The rest were charred beyond recognition. All of the remains are now memorialized in the town cemetery. About 20 or so inhabitants managed to avoid the initial roundup by the SS, along with the injured handful that escaped the massacre.
Leaving the museum through a tunnel and then going up some steps, you enter what is left of the original town of Oradour-sur-Glane. The experience was very surreal for me. It was jarring going from the dark, somber interior of the museum, having just read about the shocking events of that day, to a warm and bright sunny day outside, a day probably much like the weather on June 10, 1944. It’s not a big town – you can walk from one end of the main street to the other in about ten minutes. Tourists were walking quietly up and down the streets, stopping to occasionally take pictures with smart phones or to read signs. Seeing the use of modern technology felt very discordant in a ghost town where time has stood still for 70+years.
The buildings are shells of their original structures. It’s sobering to think that many of the embattled cities and towns in Europe probably looked much like this, or worse, after the end of World War II. Though even here, the rubble and overt signs of violence have been cleared away. Most of the soot has washed off the buildings after so many years of exposure to the elements. The grass in the village green is kept neat and moved, the weeds are kept to a minimum throughout the damaged buildings, and the walls are kept from further decay with braces and supports. But throughout the site, there are rusty reminders of normal daily life, as well as reminders of the tragic events of that day. A bicycle at the black smiths’s shop. A treadle sewing machine in someone’s home. A rusty metal bed frame. Metal remnants of old cars. Signs identifying the buildings where the men were gathered before being shot.
The most difficult place to visit was the church. Surprisingly, much of the stone structure has survived, even though reports say that the fire inside was so hot it melted the bronze bell atop the steeple. Now, the church feels clean, serene, peaceful, and very sad. It’s not a very large space, and I can’t imagine over 450 women and children, packed in tightly, suffocating – mothers probably trying to protect their children and then watching them die, children watching their mothers gunned down. It’s unbearable to think about.
After coming home, I did some more reading and research, trying to make sense of such vicious and senseless behavior. It turns out that to this day, it is not clear exactly why those particular SS troops picked Oradour-sur-Glane for such atrocities. There is lots of speculation, most of it having to do with retaliation to the French resistance in the area which was fighting guerrilla warfare against the German occupation.
A new Oradour-sur-Glane was rebuilt further up the road within sight of the original town. I have to give credit to the residents for having the courage to live with the constant reminder of such a painful memory. It could not have been easy for the survivors to live within sight of the ruined buildings and be reminded of all the family and friends they had lost. I imagine it was even harder for the families in the nearby hamlets that had lost their children that day, while they lived on.
The historic town site of Oradour-sur-Glane is now encircled by a stone wall with only an unassuming sign at the entrance:
SOUVIENS-TOI – REMEMBER
Thanks for visiting.