Yet another misty morning and we were treated to a visit from a Red Squirrel. We had been throwing out the stale bread for the birds, using the wooden barrow as an impromptu bird table. Tufty seemed to like stale bread too. He certainly had the teeth for it which is more than could be said for us old codgers in the gite.
Our itinerary for today, Thursday, was to take us to Oradour-sur-Glane a few miles north and west of Limoges. Chosen by me because, a couple of years ago, I had read an excerpt from a book that had just been published. The excerpt, published in one of our national papers, told of the tragedy that befell the residents of this French village.
So to set the scene …
On 10th June, 1944, 642 of its inhabitants, almost the entire population of Oradour, including women and children, were massacred.
From Wikipedia: A massacre is a specific incident which involves the violent killing of many people and the perpetrating party is perceived as in total control of force while the victimized party is perceived as helpless or innocent.
Although the true reason for this atrocity is not known, one explanation is that members of an SS Panzer Division entered the village to avenge a German officer, kidnapped by the French Resistance.
The SS ordered all the townspeople to assemble in the village square. To keep everyone calm, this was done under the pretense of having their papers checked. Some 400 women and children, separated from the men, were herded into the church where the SS placed an incendiary device. After it was ignited, women and children tried to escape through the doors and windows of the church, but they were met with machine-gun fire. Only one woman, 47-year-old Marguerite Rouffanche, managed to escape from the church. She was shot and wounded as she escaped but managed to hide until she was rescued the next day.
The men of the village, more than 200 were herded into a barn where machine gunners opened fire, shooting at their legs so they could not move then dousing them with petrol and setting them alight. The SS then looted the village and set fire to the buildings before leaving.
A few months later, after Liberation, de Gaulle visited Oradour-sur-Glane and it was decided that the ruins were to remain, untouched, as a monument to the martyr village.
Oradour-sur-Glane now has a visitor centre, the “Village Martyr, Centre de la Memoire” which leads you through world history and the events that lead to the war and ultimately to the events that occurred in Oradour itself.
The centre sets out to put Oradour into its proper context in the war. The village was quite prosperous and, with several cafe’s and restaurants, was a popular destination for people from Limoges and the surrounding areas. All this came to a dramatic end on that fateful day.
This then, is the Oradour-sur-Glane left behind by the SS on that summer’s day.
As you walk through the village you become increasingly aware of how quiet it is. It isn’t just that you are requested, on entry, to remain quiet. Having been through the visitor centre you are well aware of the tragedy that occurred here and the enormity of the crime seems to be underlined.
Deserted streets which were once busy with the footsteps of the local residents. No more greetings as friends and neighbours meet, going about their daily business. Visiting the boucherie, charcuterie, boulangerie or even ladies chatting about their appointment at the salon de coiffure. Silent.
The tram lines and wires which once carried many visitors now lead nowhere and, like the streets, are silent. The quiet settles about you like a mantle. It’s not oppressive here although you might expect it to be.
The plaque on the wall of the ruined church reminds us that some women and children were massacred by the Nazis and asks that you make a prayer for the victims and their families.
The heat of the fire was so intense that the bell dropped from the church tower. Just a molten blob remains, with only the clapper giving a clue as to its original purpose.
Another symbol of the heart that was ripped out of Oradour is the infants school. This being a weekday, there should have been the sounds of the classroom and the playground. Silent
A memorial to a family, victims of the massacre, their ages ranging from 5 to 67.
There are, in the ruins, many symbols of normal, daily life. Perhaps the one that I became most aware of is the sewing machine. It seems that almost every house had one and the body of such machines is the lasting reminder of the fact that these were indeed, people’s homes.
Other reminders are scattered around the ruins. The ornate metal frames of beds, perambulators, bicycles and cooking pots all serving as a memorial to the lost people of this village.
I found myself getting angry as I walked around the ruins of this once prosperous village. Angry, not just at the men that had perpetrated this act of barbarism, but also, at the fact that despite the many years that have passed, human kind still hasn’t learned the lesson.
In the last seventy years, since Oradour, there have been many, many events that can be classified as massacres. Some, initiated by disturbed individuals, but many carried out by armed military against unarmed and non military people. There have been too many such incidents.
The sad thing is that they are still happening, perpetrated in the name of religion, race or “I was just following orders”.