The martyr Village
It's Veterans Day and our thoughts go to the men and women who have sacrificed so much. Each war brings its own horrific stories. We have all heard accounts of our American soldiers fallen during WWII. The D-Day Beaches, the American Cemetery, and the Caen Peace Memorial in Normandy are all chilling reminders of the atrocities. The soldiers and their families lost so much. Instead of talking about the military today, however, I want to share a story of French civilians who also deserve to be honored.
This summer, between visiting friends in Nantes and Lyon, I took a detour to see a living memorial that still haunts me.
The village of Oradour-sur-Glane has not changed since June 10, 1944. This preserved village is a somber reminder of the largest Nazi massacre of civilians on French soil. Charles de Gaulle ordered that the ruins be left as they stood, so that we never forget.
This peaceful village was NOT occupied by Nazi troops during WWII but on June 10, 1944 a group of soldiers from the 2nd SS-Panzer Division came into town and rounded up the citizens for an identity check. This required every man, woman and child to come to the Champ de Foire. The women and children were brought to the church while the men were divided into 6 groups and lead to different barns.
190 Men, Perished
Once inside the barns, the men were shot at by machine guns placed outside. The SS Soldiers aimed at their legs, to disable the men, but not kill them. They then piled wood and straw on the bodies and lit the barns on fire. Six men did escape from one of the barns, but one was discovered and shot dead. Five men successfully got away. One of them, Robert Hebras, has been back to visit the village, but it is extremely difficult, of course. He agrees that it is important that his village be preserved so that future generations can continue to honor those lost.
The unfathomable Massacre
A large gas bomb was thrown into the church. It didn't work as intended, so the SS shot at the women and children, piled wood into the building and set it on fire. One woman, Madame Rouffanche escaped through a window. She was shot and wounded, but managed to hide in a row of plants and stayed there until the next day. Another woman and child tried to escape the blaze, but were shot and killed. Madame Rouffanche is the only survivor of the church. 247 woman and 205 children were brutally killed that day.
As I approached the church, I began to wonder if I could manage to step inside. Women and children. The men in the barns was difficult enough, but I found this especially chilling.
But I felt the duty to remember. To pay hommage to those who had suffered and died. Outside there was bright sunshine, and the buildings seemed almost honored to guard this history. People moved slowly and quietly - paying their respect to those lost. Moments of silence.
As I continued to walk through the village, I was struck by how the townspeople had just been going about a normal day when their whole world collapsed. I walked by cafés, a hair salon, and saw personal items such as a pot on the fire, a sewing machine and a bicycle. In one day a whole town ceased to exist.
When I think about "ruins" I think of a compact area, but this is an entire town. The streets went on and on. There was an abandoned railroad track. The cars were rusted right where they stood, sometimes with flowers and grass growing entwined.
Why did this happen?
The reason for this massacre remains somewhat of a mystery. There are certain theories - retaliation for D-Day, the capture of a prominent German Officer - as well as others. It doesn't change the outcome or explain the barbaric acts. 642 citizens, murdered in cold blood as they were going about their business on a summer day.
The town stands exactly as it did, with a few signs posted to remind us to "Remember" and pay hommage in "Silence". There are signs indicating where events took place as well. You can wind through the streets at your own pace.
At the entrance to the ghost town (the new village of Oradour-Sur-Glane was rebuilt just a few kilometers away) there is a museum called the Centre de la Memoire and also a bookstore. I arrived just one hour before closing, so I did not have a chance to go through the museum or bookstore.
Living history. A reminder that we must not repeat these atrocities. A shrine to those who perished. That they are not forgotten.
On Veteran's Day we remember so many that deserve to be honored. There are too many stories of suffering and loss. Wishing peace to you and yours.