19 June 2008
Ten days in France over and back home, refreshed and ready to re-face the world.
Let me tell you about Oradour sur Glane. We visited it as part of our sojourn. I've been there once before so the effect of the place didn't hit me as hard, but for our friends who accompanied us, it was a new and eye-opening experience.
The story of Oradour sur Glane, a small village close to Limoges in the Limousin area of central France, breaks your heart every time you hear it. The brief is simple and stark - on June 10th 1944, an SS battalion of 2,000 men marched into the village, surrounded it, rounded up every person there, shot all of the men and then suffocated the women and children by locking them in the village church and setting fire to it.
Six men survived the shootings, and just one woman escaped the church. A boy managed to escape from his school when the troops came in to collect everybody. Everyone else died.
Once the killing was completed, the Germans then set fire to the bodies to the extent that a large number could not be identified. They looted the whole village and burnt as much of it as they could.
642 people in total lost their lives, from a 7-month old baby to an 88 year old woman.
It's horrific, even for Nazi wartime atrocities. No German commanding officer was ever brought to justice over Oradour, and an amnesty granted by the Bordeaux tribunal to the French citizens forcibly commandeered by the German occupying forces who took part at Oradour meant that no closure was ever provided for grieving relatives.
The village was rebuilt adjacently, and the ruined, lifeless shell of the old village became Government property. It was preserved in its entirety, with an underground exhibition and lecture centre, detailing all the history, constructed beneath.
You go to Oradour now, pay your admission and venture down into the exhibition centre. It details - in three different languages (sadly the English translations seem to be much briefer than the main French text) - the history and events leading up to the massacre. At the time, the Germans occupied northern and parts of western France but the Limousin area was not in their outright command.
There follows some history of Oradour itself including, poignantly, a couple of school photographs from 1944 and a copy of the last census taken from the village, which listed the numbers of men, women and children living there. You also watch a brief DVD (it used to be a film with translating headphones, now it's just a French DVD with unsatisfactorily summarised subtitles) which details the basic events of the fateful day. Then you go through another section of the exhibition which details the aftermath - discovery of the village, transcripts of statements and the deeply flawed war crimes tribunal which concluded in no convictions. The last bit of the exhibition showcases the building of the new village and the acquisition of the original Oradour as a permanent reminder of wartime horrors by the French nation.
Finally, you climb the stairs at the other end and walk round the old village. There is a sign marked 'SILENCE' as you reach the helm of the staircase but frankly, nobody need be told that speaking in anything other than hushed tones is inappropriate.
There is, within the old village, an underground memorial vault. In it is a full Roll of Honour, and you feel obliged to read every name. There are glass cabinets containing documents and photographs which survived the flames, plus personal effects such as keys, spectacles, toys and coins. Most poignantly, the remains of the victims are stored here, though the public cannot see those.
Oradour sur Glane remains an unfinished campaign to the descendants and relatives of those who died. It's about 20 minutes drive from Limoges Airport.
Photography in the exhibition and the underground memorial is disallowed, but cameras were permitted in the streets of the old village itself. I hope these pictures, a handful of the many I took, give significant enough an indication of what occurred that day.