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A visit to Oradour sur Glane

1France’s living tribute to a murdered community

 

By Lisa Davis-Burnett

 

The stones of history remain stacked one upon another – stacked by human hands from long ago, ragged-edged walls frame serene blue skies and throughout the rubble: bicycles, sewing machines, automobiles…rusting remnants of those who once lived in a peaceful community called Oradour.

 

Occupied rural France in World War II was certainly not unaffected by the violence of the war, but overall, the people went about their daily lives in much the same way as they always had. The charming hamlet of Oradour sur Glane in the Limosin region exemplified this scenario. It was a quiet place, a community that had stood for over a thousand years on the edge of the river Glane in west-central France. Some travelled daily by train to jobs in nearby Limoges, where factories still produce fine porcelain. These people, who rarely even saw any of their Nazi occupiers, were not particularly fearful of them when they did see them. But that all changed on the warm summer afternoon of June 10, 1944.

 

My visit to the ruined town came by way of friends living nearby, friends who used to live in St. Maarten – Sarah and T.P. Parson whose son was a fast friend to my son back in the 90s. The Parsons were admirable hosts and showed us the beauty of their part of the country, reserving a day for something they insisted that everyone should see: Oradour. So I went, not knowing what to expect.

 

What I saw was an entire village reduced to rubble, emptied of humanity, haunted by sorrow. What I learned was how this came to be. In the last months of the war, the French Résistance was active to hurry along its inevitable end. On June 9, 1944, they came across SS-Sturmbannführer (Major) Helmut Kämpfe traveling towards Normandy to mobilize his division against the Allied D-Day invasions which had begun three days earlier. The resistance fighters captured and executed the officer in the village of Oradour sur Vayres, another village with a similar name. Kämpfe was the highest ranking officer the resistance had ever captured. His execution was a big deal.2

 

When the German SS discovered what had happened, orders were sent out from the regimental commander to SS-Sturmbannführer Adolf Diekmann, who commanded the first Battalion. Perhaps he was to mete out a punishment, or perhaps take hostages in hopes of negotiating an exchange should Kämpfe still be alive. Being a personal friend of Kämpfe, Diekmann’s desire for revenge may have superseded his orders. The record is debated and the truth will never be known. What is known is the brutal timing of events from that fateful summer day.

 

Diekmann directed his troops to Oradour-sur-Glane (mistaking it for Oradour-sur-Vayres.) The hastily conceived plan was cool and efficient. Around two o’clock in the afternoon, the townsfolk noticed some German soldiers walking down the street, people gathered at windows with curiosity rather than alarm. By 3:00, the village was surrounded and the inhabitants were summoned by the sound of a drum to the village green. They came leisurely thinking this would be some kind of ID check: the men, the women – some with babies – the old people, and the school children in lines with their teachers leading the way. Only one boy ran away, he a refuge from Lorraine named Roger Godfrin who said that he “knew them.” Godfrin escaped and was the lone survivor of the 247 school children of Oradour.

 

Some bicyclists, five men and a girl, were simply passing through the village at the wrong time and were stopped and added to the crowd of townsfolk. In short order, the soldiers separated the men from the others. The men were split into six groups and marched off to barns and garages. The women and children were marched to the village church and locked inside. There they surely heard the machine gunfire and screams as their menfolk were cut down. Reports say the soldiers aimed for their legs, then set fire to the structures. It was four o’clock.

 

3Soon after, two young soldiers entered the church and placed a bomb with long fuses out the door. Suddenly there was a big bang, setting the whole church on fire, burning the women and children alive. The youngest of them was not even a week old.

 

Before sunset, the rest of the village was set on fire, perhaps to disguise the truth of what had occurred. But four men and one woman somehow survived to tell the tale.

 

This atrocity stands among innumerable such examples of man’s inhumanity to man. Tempting as it is to scorn the Nazis, every culture is sadly guilty of such things, some more than others, but we all share the stain of innocent blood. The real evil is war which drives us to such acts and excuses such behaviour when cloaked in nationalism, revenge or ambition. War is hell, and we choose it again and again, to our detriment.

 

My visit to Oradour sur Glane was profound and unsettling. Upon entering the site, we were directed into an underground museum through which we walked slowly going lower into the earth. The darkness of the space set the mood quite effectively. When we came back above ground, we were in the old village. Small plaques in French were placed on some of the buildings; here had been a bakery, there a tailor. Farther down the stone-paved roads are the ruins of a barber shop, a clothing store or a shoemaker. Everything has been left as it was left behind on that fatal day.

 

After the war, French President Charles de Gaulle declared that Oradour sur Glane’s ruins should become a living memorial. He also decided that the new city would be rebuilt, just next to the old village. Oradour’s remaining inhabitants had been living in primitive conditions until the new Oradour was inaugurated in 1953. Many continue to wear black in mourning for their lost families.

 

People are fond of saying that things happen for a reason, but the hollow echoes from the stones of Oradour sur Glane whisper: “How?” “Why?” … and there is no answer.

 

Sources: “Oradour Sur Glane” booklet published by L’Association des Families des Martyers d’Oradour-sur-Glane, Wikipedia, and www.losapos.com/oradoursurglane . Oradour sur Glane is free of charge to all who wish to visit.

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