When my friends Kathleen and David were here, Kathleen wanted to visit Oradour-sur-Glane. She read a bit about it to me from the Guide Verte ... we never made it there, so yesterday I decided to play tourist a bit and make the trip.
It is hard to express much about Oradour-sur-Glane. A small, unprepossessing village outside of Limoges ... one really wouldn't have thought much about it. It did have a little tram which ran to and from Limoges, which deposited city visitors on the week-end for a short trip to the countryside. The town had a reputation for a peaceful life ... and offered picnicking spots, fishing in the Glane and many restaurants and cafés which were pleasant to visit outside of the city of Limoges. The town also had 3 schools, a boys' school, a girls' school and an infants' school (like our kindergarten).
For many speculated-upon reasons, Oradour-sur-Glane became a target of Nazi destruction on June 10th, 1944. But at about 2:00 p.m. that day, the Nazis rolled in to Oradour-sur-Glane. Most agree that what was to follow was retribution for acts of Resistance by the French. None of these acts were directly tied to Oradour citizens, but they would pay the price. By 7:30 p.m. the village and all of its inhabitants, save six, were destroyed. In all, 642 people were murdered, including 193 children.
The townsfolk were herded into a public square where they were told they would undergo a routine check of their papers. During the course of the day, men were separated from women and children, and then groups of men were taken to various barns in the town. The five surviving men were all from the same barn. In their account, they relay that machine guns were volleyed at all of the men in the barn, and then the barn was locked and set afire. Five men ( I read the account of one, a 19 year old at the time) found their way out, injured but alive.
The women and children were taken to the cathedral. The same story exists, first they were shot and the buildings were then set on fire, those trying to escape were shot dead. One woman managed to hide behind an altar, then get herself up to a window where she leapt 10 feet to the ground. She helped another woman and baby out, they were all shot ... the woman and baby died. This one woman crawled to the garden, where she lay among rows of peas until the next day when someone arrived to find her.
After killing all of the inhabitants, the SS soldiers looted the village and set the entire thing ablaze. Apparently, they returned the next day to dig two huge pits and tried to conceal the remains. Later, the inquiry into this atrocity uncovered the truth.
When de Gaulle came to visit the town, he ordered it left as it was, that the ruins be preserved so future generations might not forget. He also decreed that a new village of Oradour should be built, near the ruins. It took 9 years for this village to be inaugurated. When it was, the village was required to wear mourning, no color was allowed, walls and shutters were painted grey. It was a solemn time.
Some of the SS Commanders responsible for the massacre were brought to trial and convicted, but an act of amnesty (in the interest of national unity) gave a free pardon to all those accused or convicted. This included sentences of death, hard labour and prison for the massacre at Oradour.
Because the government took this decision, the Village of Oradour broke off all relations with the state for 17 years. It returned the Legion of Honour that had been bestowed upon the village. The families refused to place the ashes of the victims in the memorial raised by the state. Instead, it financed its own monument, erected in the cemetery. During the time of this rupture, little aid was provided to the citizens of Oradour, making their lives even more difficult.
What occurred that summer day is truly unfathomable. The slide show below shows you the ruins I walked through. It was a sobering experience and gave pause to consider man's inhumanity to man. The cemetery was heartbreaking, whole families wiped out, faces of little children looking up from the memorials. The new Oradour shares this cemetery with the old, and with the memorial. Near the statue erected in memory of the massacre are two glass coffins, housing the bones and ashes of the dead.