Death of a Village: Oradour-sur-Glane

Oradour - tramway station 2

I wasn’t sure if I should write about this at all. Visiting Oradour-sur-Glane near Limoges this week, I felt like a voyeur. The 2nd SS Panzer Division Das Reich slaughtered 642 people and torched the village on 10th June 1944, during their destructive march northwards to try to hold off the Allied offensive. Hounded and harassed all the way by Resistance groups, they carried out terrible reprisals.

Permanent memorial

Oradour has been preserved in its ruined state following the massacre as a memorial to the victims. It has inevitably become a tourist “attraction”. Despite the signs requesting people to preserve a respectful silence, some of the other visitors chattered loudly and appeared unmoved by what the place represents. Were we honouring or desecrating the victims’ memory by taking photos of the places where they died? I hope the former.

Main street in Oradour

Main street in Oradour

Death in the afternoon 

On that June Saturday afternoon 72 years ago, 200 SS troops encircled Oradour before tightening the net to drive the people into the main square. Around 400 women and children were then herded into the church. The men were divided into groups and pressed into various buildings around the village while the troops searched for arms caches.

Abandoned car at the entrance to the square where the villagers were penned in

Abandoned car at the entrance to the square where the villagers were penned in

The men were shot and burnt. Only six managed to escape from one of the buildings, one of whom was later shot. The women and children were killed in the church by asphyxiating smoke, grenades and machine guns. Two women and a child escaped through a sacristy window, but only one of the women survived. Others managed to escape by hiding in the village. The film told of a Jewish man who hid his children in a niche under some stone steps before he was taken away to his fate.

Barn from which a few men managed to escape

Barn from which a few men managed to escape

The soldiers then pillaged Oradour and set fire to the buildings. They returned the next day to burn and mutilate the bodies to prevent their identification.

This bald account can evoke nothing of the terror and horror that the village folk must have experienced that day. Oradour today is a haunting and melancholy place but time has effaced the raw anguish that must have been palpable in the massacre’s aftermath.

Main street from the other end

Main street from the other end

Oradour today

Entry to the Village Martyr is free but you can pay €9 to see the exhibition in the Visitor Centre, including a film about the events at Oradour. The exhibition charts the debacle of May 1940, the German occupation, the development of the resistance (nothing like as co-ordinated and homogeneous as history would have us believe), the advance northwards of the Das Reich division and, finally, the 10th June massacre. It also tells of the war crimes trial in 1953, where some of the perpetrators were found guilty, but they were released later on.

As I walked slowly around the village, the gentle Limousin breeze ruffled my hair, the birds sang and jostled among the ruins and the scent of cut grass and honeysuckle wafted across the streets. The sounds of everyday life arose from the new Oradour that was constructed nearby in the late 1940s.

One of many sewing machines that resisted the flames

One of many sewing machines that resisted the flames

A number of items in the buildings had resisted the flames: rusty stoves, metal basins, cars. I was struck in particular by the number of sewing machines among the rubble. They remain as silent witnesses to the thriving village that Oradour was in 1944. Almost every building housed a shop, workshop or business.

Quincaillerie

Quincaillerie

 

Garage

Garage

Roofless church

Roofless church

The church, scene of the worst of the massacre, is at the bottom of the village street. Although roofless, it looks almost normal. But I paused on the threshold and had a fleeting sense of anxiety. This redoubled when I saw the rusted wheels and frame of a pushchair near the altar. I didn’t take any pictures in the church.

I spent around 2 ½ hours at Oradour. This is one of so many places in the world where man’s inhumanity to man has broken through the surface. It’s not a place to be taken lightly.

Oradour - Souviens-toi

Further reading:

Das Reich: The March of the 2nd SS Panzer Division through France, June 1944, Max Hastings, Pan Military Classics, reprinted 2009.

You might also like:

The Liberation of Montauban, 19th August 1944
A Story of the French Resistance During World War II
Favourite French Films #1 Le Vieux Fusil
Sheltering Jews in SW France During World War II

This post is taking part in the #AllAboutFrance linky, where you can find plenty of other fascinating posts about France.

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About nessafrance

My husband and I moved to an 18th-century farmhouse in SW France in 1997. I am fascinated by French history, rural traditions and customs and enjoy seeking out the reality behind the myths. I run my own copywriting business and write short stories and the occasional novel in my spare time. My husband appears here as the SF, which stands for Statistics Freak, owing to his penchant for recording numbers about everything.
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27 Responses to Death of a Village: Oradour-sur-Glane

  1. loumessugo says:

    I had shivers running down my spine reading this, it’s such a moving (and spooky) place. I visited Auschwitz last year and was struck by how many people were laughing and taking selfies. It horrified me. I couldn’t have laughed if asked to. But it did make me stop to think about the whole issue of taking photos in places like this and I agree with you that it’s honouring the victims; (I don’t think it’s necessary to have a grinning selfie face in the foreground though). More recently I went into Nice to see the flowers and memorials of the victims killed in the attack and took a few photos. it’s a delicate balance but I definitely think it’s important to remember and learn from these atrocities. Thanks for sharing this with #AllAboutFrance

    Liked by 1 person

    • nessafrance says:

      I felt very subdued at Oradour. I can’t begin to imagine how you must have felt at Auschwitz – and I’m horrified to hear about people’s disrespectful behaviour there. It’s important that we remember.

      Like

  2. I did a similar post in the run up to the referendum, it was my most read post to date, over 6,000 views but I published it on the exact day the event took place in 1944.

    Liked by 1 person

    • nessafrance says:

      I missed posting it on the anniversary this year, but that’s because I visited just afterwards. Visiting was not something you could call enjoyable, but I felt it was something I had to do.

      Like

  3. Andrea says:

    Wonderful post. I ran school trips to Auschwitz. Witnessing these things are so important.

    Liked by 1 person

  4. Thanks for sharing your visit to Oradour. Now more than ever I think we need to remember how much trauma war brings. These tragedies happened very recently in the context of world history and we should be doing everything we can to avoid them happening again.

    Liked by 1 person

    • nessafrance says:

      I totally agree. Oradour stands as a symbol of everything that’s wrong with war. Unfortunately, history is littered with examples of people not learning from previous mistakes.

      Liked by 1 person

  5. Each person who writes about oradour bears witness to a terrible event and spreads its inherent warning to those who don’t know the dreadful story. For many years we drove past the sign on the a20 and told ourselves it would be too traumatic to visit, then, one day when too early to pick up family from limoges airport, we went. It was traumatic. Not many visitors and most walking around in silence as we were. The sound of children playing in the new oradour disturbed me, maybe bringing home those former voices so violently quenched. Like you, the sight of so many sewing machines was poignant. I was satisfied we had finally visited and spending time afterwards with family was soothing. Thank for your article at a time when so much racial intolerance seems to be in the headlines.

    Liked by 2 people

    • nessafrance says:

      It is traumatic, even if the place is now cleaned up and you can only imagine how it must have been. But, for me, the echos of history were still there. I’m – selfishly – glad I went early in the day before the hordes arrived, since it allowed me to get a better sense of the village. I couldn’t stop imagining how it must have been just before the SS column arrived – and comparing it to how it was when they left.

      Like

  6. gillianbrown1 says:

    Chilling pictures and descriptions, Vanessa. They say we should remember to learn from our mistakes…well. I understand your discomfort but I think you’re right to share this. Thanks.

    Liked by 1 person

    • nessafrance says:

      History is all about us not learning from our mistakes, unfortunately. Saying I’m glad I went is not quite the right phrase, but it was important that I did.

      I’ve just read this quote by Elie Wiesel, who died yesterday: “To forget the dead would be akin to killing them a second time.”

      Like

  7. Monique says:

    my father joined the resistance–we hid American, Canadian and British –no ranks, no names–the planes were shot down–there was a reseau of resistance fighters to pass the allied from farm house to farm house. There was a double ceiling on my parents farm where they hid, rested, cleaned the wounds and on the next farm house in the darkest nights. I was little, my father would hoist me on his shoulder, climb the ladder to the small opening and I would pass the food, water, etc. back and forth. I remember the smell and the hunted look in their eyes. They said. “thank you” one day, I said thank you while playing with my dolls. My father became very angry with–forbid me to ever say the word. I never did but did not understand his rage.

    Dad found out about Oradour sur Glane shortly after the massacre. We went there, my Mother, Dad and me. I will never, never forget the smell of death. My Dad broke down and fell on his knees and cried uncontrollably for the longest time. My Mother stood silent–she could not cry–I imagine . I think that we were in the church. I looked around and saw blood, bone fragment and more. How did we get home, I do not remember.

    Tears, imbeciles having a jolly good time. What a difference does it make? Oradour sur Glane must remain a testimony of the atrocity of war. I lived in Germany for many years–did not know if I should go or not. My father and my Uncle, a Spaniard–think Bilbao. Remember this always that for every German I killed, I also killed a family, a husband, son, brother, lover, friend–the war is over. Strive for peace.

    Monique

    Liked by 1 person

    • nessafrance says:

      You have a fascinating story to tell and I’d love to talk to you about it one day. I mean about hiding the Allied airmen. I can’t imagine how much anguish you and your family must have all felt seeing Oradour so soon after the massacre, before it was all tidied up. Today, we can only get a vague sense of how it must have been, even if it remains a haunting place.

      Like

      • Monique says:

        Hiding the allied was something my father felt he had to do. He was a young child during WWI. My mother was violently opposed to the idea. She would never help my father prepare food or prepare necessities for the wounded. As a child, I did not know of the “before the war”–nothing to compare. It was the way it was.
        Did the world change? not much.
        I lived in Germany for three years with my children. Enrolled my children in various German activities–mixed with the population. I wanted to try to understand the atrocities of WWII–( I also trained in France as a classical musician–Bach, Beethoven, Mozart, Shubert, etc familiar characters) not for a grandiose forgiveness and possibly empty promises but to save my children’s soul and mine.
        I mentioned the allied in the double barn ceiling because it is part of the WWII period. My father case was not unique. I do not wish to speak about the allied who were hidden in my father’s barn. It would be crass and show a lack of respect for their sacrifice.
        The war is over. Let’s remember but not make a spectacle of the suffering.
        En Paz.

        Monique

        Liked by 1 person

      • nessafrance says:

        I’m sorry, I didn’t mean to offend you by suggesting that I would find it interesting to talk to you. Some people want to; others don’t. And I respect that.

        Like

  8. Thanks for sharing an important moment in history.

    Liked by 1 person

  9. Christine Nedahl says:

    Vanessa, a touching account of your visit to a place of such sadness. I love that the new Oradour stands in defiance of the atrocities against humanity in the old Oradour. I would like, one day. to visit and stand in silent tribute to those who died so mercilessly.

    Liked by 1 person

    • nessafrance says:

      It took a long time for the new Oradour to be built and it wasn’t completed until 1953. In the meantime, the homeless inhabitants who survived were housed in temporary log cabins. I wonder what it must be like for people to have grown up in the new village with the old one right next door. Does it affect one to live with the ghosts or does life just go on? Yes, do visit if you get the chance.

      Like

  10. Osyth says:

    I had exactly the same feeling when I visited Oradour. That I shouldn’t write a post (I did), that I shouldn’t take photographs (I did but refused any of me as did husband of him … we found that too distasteful. But I thought through my reactions and realised that the whole point (captured in the notice that says ‘souviens-toi’ that it is preserved precisely to affect us so and try and ensure that we don’t lose sight of the reality of not just that day but all those days that just keep on spewing out despite our desire to live in peace. Do please visit the Vercors sometime. It too is extremely levelling. Lastly, please do not feel that you should not judge the jolly trippers harshly. I know I did and I have no shame about it at all.

    Liked by 1 person

    • nessafrance says:

      I have just revisited your sensitive and eloquent post about Oradour. Like you, I would not have wanted to be snapped posing in front of the jagged ruins (I was alone, so no chance anyway). Fortunately, even the most annoying of the jolly day trippers didn’t seem to feel it appropriate to pose, either. In terms of scale, far worse atrocities have been committed elsewhere, but the whole point is what Oradour stands for. And that will remain with me always. I will certainly visit the Vercors when I get the opportunity.

      Liked by 1 person

      • Osyth says:

        Thank you for re-reading my piece. I came away altered. And, like you, what Oradour stands for was ingrained that day and will stay with me.

        Liked by 1 person

  11. FirstEdition says:

    I was there a few years ago and I seem to remember a pervading silence – which I think is appropriate – and seeing a tear in everyone’s eyes. I think it is quite right that we have such memorials. Perhaps we will eventually learn not to take such terrible action again. The museum in Vercors also records a similarly inhuman act – another place that requires our respect and remembrance.

    Liked by 2 people

  12. I don’t think you should feel like a voyeur. It’s best to visit in winter, on a rotten rainy day, then you get peace and quiet with no one around, to reflect upon what happened here. I personally found the ghosts almost too much to bear, it gave me gooseflesh and really brought home the savagery of humankind. I have been several times, each time I pass near, it never fails to bring the tears.

    Liked by 1 person

    • nessafrance says:

      Thank you. I have to admit to having felt rather uncomfortable but I hope I was able to appreciate – if that’s the right word – what the place stands for. I was really rather annoyed with people who seemed to treat the whole thing like a jolly day out, but I suppose I have no right to judge. And yes, the tears…

      Like

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