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