Friday, November 11, 2011

Lest We Forget - Oradour-sur-Glane

Many times over the last few months, I've thought about how to compose this post. It's not been easy.

As you know, I've been slowly recounting our summer travels around France and Spain and posting my recollections and photographs on a day to day basis and so far I've only reached Day 5 when we were still enjoying the delights of Provence.

But Day 13 was memorable for a much different reason and considering that I'm typing this at exactly 11:11 on 11.11.11, I feel it appropriate to skip ahead to that summer's day when the 3 of us, myself, Daphne and Stephen, had a relevant experience that will never be forgotten.

Here is the story behind that experience......

In 1944, WWII was nearing its end in Europe. France was occupied by the Germans and shortly after D-Day, most of their troops were ordered north towards Normandy to try and repel the Allied invasion forces. Nestling in the Limousin region of west central France, lay the small idyllic village of Oradour-sur-Glane with a population of only a few hundred.

On 9th June, a German officer was reportedly kidnapped by local resistance fighters and at this point in the story, for reasons that will become obvious, the facts become confused to say the least.

What is not in dispute is that the Germans, or the Waffen SS to be precise, wanted retaliation for this outrage and so on 10th June 1944, they entered the village and rounded up all the inhabitants. Anyone passing through the village or visiting friends there were also included. To avoid panic, they told the village mayor that this roundup was for the sole purpose of doing identity checks and this is why the inhabitants, including children taken out of the schools, were not particularly worried and were even 'asked' to sing to ease any build-up of tension.

After assembling in the village square, the men were taken to 6 nearby barns and the women and children were escorted to the village church. There may have been little anxiety but the women and children were still uncomfortable as the church was relatively small and not built to hold that many people.

A short time later, that lack of anxiety changed to terror when gunfire was heard. The men had been lined up in front of machine guns and, as some reports claim, were deliberately shot in the legs to prevent escape before being covered with wood and straw, doused with petrol and set on fire.

Only 6 men escaped from the barns; one was shot dead, ironically walking towards the cemetery and the other 5, although all wounded, managed to get away under cover of darkness.

Meanwhile, some sort of explosive smoke bomb had been set off inside the church, with the purpose of asphyxiating all the women and children. In the ensuing panic, it became obvious that the bomb hadn't worked effectively so again machine guns and hand grenades were used to 'finish the job'.

With many not yet dead, wood was also piled on their bodies and set on fire. Only 2 women, one carrying her child, managed to climb out of a shattered window behind the altar. The mother and child were shot and killed and the sole woman survivor managed to reach some nearby bushes and remained there overnight until rescued.

The village was a stopping point on the Limoges to St. Junien tram route and with 5 trams a day passing through, one came along while the massacre was taking place. The passengers were taken off but for some reason, were allowed to re-board and continue on their journey.

In total, 190 men, 247 women and 205 children were massacred that day. The town was almost burned to the ground that evening to try and hide what had taken place.

With so few survivors and no one on the German side wanting to offer up any information, some facts surrounding that dark day are a bit muddled. Some reports say the wrong village was picked for this retaliation as Oradour-sur-Vayres, a very similar looking village 35 miles to the south, was where the German kidnapping had taken place. It was also said that the initial order had been to 'just' make an example by picking out and killing 30 inhabitants.

But any hazy sub plots do nothing to diminish the atrocities committed that day.

After the war, General Charles de Gaulle decided that the village should never be rebuilt, leaving it as a lasting memorial to the cruelty of the Nazi occupation. A new village was built north of the original and today has a population of a few thousand.

I'm not sure what the current population must make of having such a memorial right on their doorstep with thousands of tourists keeping the memory uppermost in their consciousness.

And so on that overcast summer's day in 2011, we entered the ruins of Oradour-sur-Glane and no war memorial has ever affected me so much. I have only edited the photographs I took in one way - by changing them to black and white as I think that best sums up what I saw in my mind as I walked silently along the village streets. The sign at the entrance had requested our silence but it wasn't necessary. Any words were caught in my throat as the experience of reliving what had taken place there 67 years ago overwhelmed me.

The shells of burned out cars; sewing machines lying within ruined living rooms; pots and pans forever resting on the rubble of kitchen floors; the heartbreaking remains of prams and bicycles telling silent stories of young lives brutally cut short; overhead tram lines creating cruel mental images of happier times; the ruins of the homes, once full of family laughter and now remaining as stark reminders of a wartime tragedy that few even know about.

If walking along the village streets wasn't upsetting enough, entering the remains of the church took my senses to a whole new level. Probably because of my upbringing, churches have always had a fascination for me and I've always felt closer to God in a church, an empty church, than anywhere else. Not surprisingly I've rarely felt further away from God than I did in L'Eglise D'Oradour-Sur-Glane.

The atmosphere was heavy with the ghosts or souls or spirits of all those massacred women and children. Take your pick. It was palpable. Overwhelming. Disturbing.

Approaching the altar above, I was looking upwards at the window, thinking about that mother and her baby who had thought they had escaped, only to be brutally shot down a few feet away from the church. Suddenly I looked down and saw the remains of a pram almost melted into the concrete floor, such was the heat created by the burning of the bodies. If there was one image that will remain with me forever, it was the one of that pram.

Today is Veterans Day in the US and Remembrance Day in the UK. Many other countries also remember those who served and died in wars around the world. I'm not going to get into the politics or even the necessity for war as it seems to be the human way throughout history to kill each other over everything from possessions and territory to personal beliefs and religions affiliations.

But today, I'm taken back to that small village in France where 642 lives were taken in the name of retribution. Where 205 children never got to grow up and never got to know the reasons why.
Where the worse of human nature has been left exposed for future generations to see and experience and maybe, just maybe, affect enough of us to try and ensure it never happens again.

Should children be taken there ? Should they be told what happened on that day back in 1944 ?
It's certainly much more effective than simply reading about it in a book or even seeing it on tv.

Oradour-sur-Glane may be a memorial to those who perished there but it will only serve its true purpose if people get the message being silently shouted from the remains of the homes and the ruins of the church.

It's a poignant message from 642 dead souls to 7 billion living ones but sadly if history has taught us anything, it's that this is one message that usually falls on deaf ears.

Footnote : Adolph Otto Diekmann (Dickmann), the battalion commander who was the highest ranking officer present at Oradour that day and therefore the man responsible for the massacre, was himself killed in action at Normandy 19 days later. As he was due to be court-martialled for exceeding his orders at Oradour, his fellow officers said he was distraught and they believed he comitted suicide by deliberately getting himself killed in action.


Ruth said...

Thank you for this beautiful, moving post

Daphne said...

When I visited Anne Frank's house in Amsterdam some years ago, I thought that nothing would ever make such an impression on me as that place. But Oradour-sure-Glane has such a powerful atmosphere that you can nearly touch it: I'm so glad we went there and wish it was better known outside of France.
Thank you for this beautifully-written and wonderfully-illustrated post which does the place, and those who were killed on that day, such justice.

Jennyta said...

A very moving and heart-breaking post, Ian. Thank you.

rhymeswithplague said...

I was not aware of this place or this event. Thank you for writing about it.

Helsie said...

We recently watched "The World at War" on TV and the program was all about this town. We had never heard about it before then. We hope to visit it one day ourselves. I for one am very glad they have left it this way so that we can see the real thing and know the truth of many of those film sets in war movies.

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