June, 1944 — We think of D-Day. The Allies stormed the beaches of Normandy, and Hitler’s destiny was set. Thousands still visit those beaches and honor the men who fought and died there. It was violent and beastly and horrific–but it was a war we understood, and we believed it was necessary.
A few days later, June 10, 1944, in a small village, home to less than 1500 people, along the river Glane in central France, another violent, beastly, horrific event took place. But this event was neither necessary nor rational– just the evil in man in full array.
Oradour-sur-Glane had a tram that connected it to the nearby city of Limoges.
There was a garage, a cafe, a restaurant,
even a wine shop,
and a beauty shop.
And there were homes, some over the shops, and two schools for the children of the village. There was, of course, the village church.
The people of Oradour lived, worked, loved, laughed, prayed, ate, grieved–all the ordinary things of life. They cared for others in need. When the Nazis expelled people of the Moselle district from their homes, the village took them in. Think of the towns in America who responded to the people left homeless by Katrina. These were simply people who quietly went about the business of everyday living.
At 2:00pm, the SS arrived. They smiled and reassured the villagers that they were only doing a routine security check and would soon be gone.
By 3:00, all the villagers and any visitors to the town were gathered on a common. The children had been brought in a line from the schools. The people chatted and wondered a bit, but they cooperated fully.
At 3:30, the soldiers divided the people into smaller groups. Women and children were sent to the church. Men were sent to various larger buildings such as barns and the local garage. Everyone was friendly; everyone did as they were told. The soldiers began to set up machine guns–just part of the exercise. Still the people seemed not to be concerned.
At 4:00, there was an explosion somewhere outside the village. It was the signal. The machine guns fired, killing the men and older boys of the village simultaneously in the various locations. When the shooting stopped, soldiers walked among the dead, head-shooting anyone still breathing. The soldiers in the main area of Oradour began to loot the homes and drink the wines from the local shop. Then they set fire to the piles of bodies and the village buildings.
At 5:00, SS men entered the church at the edge of Oradour where all the women and children had sat listening to the events taking place. The soldiers carried a box from which hung fuses which, when lit, filled the church with suffocating smoke. When the women tried to escape through the doors, they were met with gunfire, forcing them back into the church. The doors were locked and the church was burned; all but one of those inside were killed. Among the dead were almost 200 small children, the youngest but eight days old.
One woman threw herself through a window near the altar and escaped to the nearby woods. Back at the barns, several teenage boys had managed to slide out the back door of a building and move from one hiding place to another as the soldiers checked for survivors. They, too, finally managed to get to safety. It is from these eyewitnesses that we know what happened that day.
The war ended. General de Gaulle came to Oradour, a shell of a village, destroyed because . . . well, no one really knows why Oradour was destroyed. Retaliation for D-Day? Suspicion of anti-German behavior? Maybe just because they had the power to do it?
De Gaulle asked the survivors who had been working in Limoges or other areas on that day to allow the village to be left just as it was. It was to be a visual reminder to the future of the costs of war. It was to be a memorial to the innocent who were massacred there by unimaginable evil.
And so it stands today. So stark–only a few signs to designate the buildings and a few plaques that list the names and ages of those who lived there.
Walls have and continue to crumble. The remains are mostly rusted metal frames of ordinary objects. They are haunting. Largest are the automobiles parked where they were that day. Farm equipment and tools are scattered in and around buildings. Bicycles still lean where left, as do tricycles and the frames of prams.
Most haunting to me are the sewing machines. I photographed eight of them and I only walked two streets. I felt driven to locate as many of them as I could. I looked in every building for them. Sewing machines I understand! They represent women who make things. Things they need and things of beauty. The sewing machines connected me to those women who died before I was even born.
Finally Steve and I joined each other and sat on a curbstone. We didn’t say much. Then he said, “In its own way, this whole place is a piece of art.” He was so right. That explains the strength of this memorial. It not only represents the deeds done here that day, it confronts us with where we would have fit had we been here. It moves us exactly as great art does.
The horror of Oradour is like that of Auschwitz, Dachau, Buchenwald, Warsaw. In the camps, the Jews were stripped, shaven, dehumanized. It is easier to understand why they were unable to resist, unable to rebel. It is less so, for me, here. Surely the people relocated from the Moselle region had shared their experiences. How could these villagers not suspected something, not tried to escape, not sent their children off to hide? According to the eye witnesses, none did. Why?
Does fear also create calm in our brains that helps us cope? Is it simply impossible for us to believe something this insanely horrible could actually be happening to us? Is it our humanity that prevents us from seeing or realizing how evil man can be?
I don’t know.
All I know is that I sat on that rock and thought of the mothers in that church and of their despair as they realized they could not protect, save their children. I couldn’t feel their pain, or their panic; but I could feel my connection to them. It was strong, like a huge knot–and there was fear.
I’m glad I discovered Oradour-sur-Glane while planning this trip. I’m glad I went there.I wish everyone would go, especially the political leaders of today’s world. The hate that created this massacre cannot be dismissed as a result of race or creed or even greed. The men who planned and carried out this act gained nothing. There was nothing to gain. This act had no rational purpose.
And those men–The men were found; they were tried; they were convicted; they were sentenced; and then, on the day of sentencing, they were released.
The war was over. It was deemed time to move on.
How incredibly quickly, and how ruinously, we choose to forget.