Oradour-sur-Glane - Where the scars will never heal
The 10th of June 1944 was the day the German Nazis turned a French village and all of its inhabitants to ash and rubble. Today, the village remains a silent testimony to the horrors of war.
It is a beautiful summer’s day when we park our car by the welcome center in Oradour-sur-Glane. The sun is shining, the sky is blue and there are a lot of people walking around.
But something is … off. It is quiet. It is so quiet. The streets are lined with people standing, looking, taking pictures, peeking over walls, but nobody says a word. Some are crying.
Yes, it is difficult to hold back the tears. Walking through Oradour-sur-Glane is hard even on a sunny day, for it is not the normal kind of village. It is a village that teemed with life only until the 10th of June 1944. On the day after, only 26 of its 660 inhabitants remained alive.
There are signs on the ruined houses. ”DENTISTE - Mme Reignier”. ”GARAGE - H. Desourteaux”. And ”ECOLE DES FILLES” - girls' school.
A group of skeletons of cars have found their final rest on one of the lots. A sewing machine, in another one. A plough. Some tools and the rest of a counter in a mechanical workshop. They are the only material remains of the lives that were extinguished through bullets, fire and smoke on that one day in June, little more than 60 years ago.
In 1944, it was rumoured that a Waffen-SS officer had been taken captive by the French resistance and was held in the nearby village of Oradour-sur-Vayres. To put pressure on the resistance, the regimental commander Adolf Diekmann ordered the town mayor to pick thirty people to be held as hostages until the release of the officer. Then, Diekmann moved on to Oradour-sur-Glane. The village was sealed off so that nobody could leave, including six people who had simply been passing through on bikes. All villagers were commanded to leave their homes and go to the village square with their personal papers, to have their identities checked. The SS men then divided the villagers.
First, the women and children were locked into the city church.
Second, the men were led to six barns and sheds.
Then, the SS started shooting at them with machine guns. They aimed at their legs. After having made sure their victims could not move, they set fire to the barns. Six of the men managed to escape. One of them was later shot dead when caught walking down a road.
Then the SS moved on to the women and children. When they set fire to the church, they had already rigged machine guns to shoot any person who tried to escape. 247 women died in the fire, 205 children. Two women and one child managed to jump out through the sacristy window. All three were shot, but 47-year-old Marguerite Rouffanche managed to survive by crawling to a couple of pea bushes where she remained hidden until the next morning, when she was found and rescued.
Entering the church today sends a chill of horror through the body. It is so empty. The small altar shines strangely white. The misshaped church bells lie on the floor beside the doors, partly melted by the fire that devoured 452 women and children alive. People enter and leave quietly. Shake their heads incredulously. Take pictures. But nothing can capture the memory of the horror that vibrates in the air.
There was a foreign report on the aftermath written by the 20-year-old Raymond J. Murphy. He was an American B-17 navigator who had been shot down over Avord in April 1944 and hidden by the French resistance. His formal report had a handwritten addendum:
”About 3 weeks ago, I saw a town within 4 hours bicycle ride up the Gerbeau farm where some 500 men, women, and children had been murdered by the Germans. I saw one baby who had been crucified.”
Next to the cemetary, a small, underground museum shows the personal belongings of the villagers who have been preserved througout decades of grief. Glasses, books, combs, an old phone, photographs, toys, a lot of toys.
Toys that once made a little child very happy, but today only serve as a painful reminder of the horrors that human beings can be made to commit against one another.
It is a small village, but slowly walking along its streets and alleys takes several hours. This is not a place to rush through. ”SOUVIENS-TOI”, says a final sign. REMEMBER.