Monday, 7 April 2014
Massacre At Oradour-sur-Glane
Human beings are capable of wondrous achievements and extraordinary kindness. We care. We love. We cure. We share. We protect. The vast majority of mankind possess a conscience; a voice inside each of us that tells us what’s right and what’s wrong. Occasionally however, either through weak self-preservation, fear or mental instability, people perpetrate such violence that it leaves the rest of us breathless at the magnitude of malevolence humans are capable of inflicting on others. One of these occasions was the atrocity committed by the Germans in the small French town of Oradour-sur-Glane on a sunny afternoon on 10th June 1944.
What visceral imaginings went through the Germans’ minds while on their way to the Oradour, we’ll never know. We can only speculate as to whether they noticed the abundance of flowers growing along the hedgerows or valued the beauty of the River Glane and the surrounding countryside. Sadly, speculation isn’t necessary for what happened when they arrived.
I've visited Oradour-sur-Glane twice to walk the roads of the once quaint town, to absorb the atmosphere and to witness first-hand the place that I’m writing about in my latest novel, A Hill In France. My story places a young farm girl called Arlette, in Oradour-sur-Glane on the day of the massacre. I couldn’t possibly write about such horror without visiting the martyred village myself. Charles de Gaulle declared that the ruins must stay as a permanent national monument to the townspeople’s suffering, so I found Oradour just as it had been left on the day of the genocide; frozen in time.
As you can imagine, I feel a weight of responsibility in writing about a fictional character living through a real atrocity; and rightly so. I want to honour the villagers' last hours with respect and honesty and it’s essential that I choose the right words and don't glamourize this horrendous crime. Below are photographs taken on my visits and a summarized account of what followed the Germans’ arrival. The facts are true and from first-hand accounts, as miraculously several villagers managed to escape that day.
At 2pm on Saturday 10th June 1944, German SS soldiers from 2nd Panzer Tank Division, drove into Oradour-sur-Glane. Being a Saturday, the village was busy with many visitors from outlying areas who were either shopping, visiting family and friends, keeping an appointment at the hairdressers or stopping for a drink after cycling the peaceful lanes. Fatefully, all the school children were attending school as a vaccination programme was taking place. Due to war rationing, it was also the day of tobacco distribution meaning that men from outlying villages had come to collect their rations.
The people of Oradour-sur-Glane felt safe from the horrors of the war and despite the obvious food and fuel restrictions they enjoyed a comfortable seclusion. They were therefore surprised to see lorries carrying 150-200 German soldiers enter the village. Soon people began to assemble in the main square from all directions as they were ordered at gun point to congregate in an area the locals called the fairground, due to an annual fair being held there. The elderly were hauled out of their homes, clients pushed out of the hairdressers with wet hair, men with half-shaved faces forced from the barbers and mothers pushing prams were directed towards the growing crowd in the centre of the town. The baker joined them - still covered in flour, school teachers holding children’s hands, the local priest and diners at restaurants. The carpenter was forced to leave his shop, also the cobbler, the village cart-wright, the blacksmith, the butcher and the confectioner. A sick school teacher was forced to join them still wearing her pyjamas.
Standing in the fierce summer sunshine, hundreds of people packed the village square. Several women fainted overcome by heat and fear. The doctor arrived in his car having finished his morning rounds, was forced from his car and ordered to join the others. The Germans even scoured nearby fields for farmers working the land. A couple of cyclists enjoying a day out on the outskirts of Oradour were forced from their bikes – those same bikes are left rusting where they dismounted, to this day.
The women and children were separated from the men. The men were ordered at gun point towards several barns before the SS mounted machine guns at the barns’ entrances. A signal was given and the executioners in front of each barn, opened fire at the same time. To add to this horrific image, the Germans strafed their guns at the legs of the men, meaning that escape was impossible and death would be more gruesome. The Germans clambered over the injured men and boys, covering them with ladders, straw and cart slats which were then set alight.
One of the barns where the men were murdered
Meanwhile the women and children were being shepherded towards the church. Once crammed inside, the SS placed a device inside attached to a fuse. The Germans lit the fuse and ran to safety, bolting the doors behind them. The explosion killed many. Those who survived and tried to escape, some in flames, were shot. The Nazis re-entered the church, machine gun fire strafing back and forth. Soon the fire took hold and thick black smoke filled the main church and two side chapels. We know what happened inside this holy place because one woman survived by climbing out of a broken window behind the altar. A burnt out pram still lies in front of the altar, left as a memorial.
Oradour's church where the women and children died
The Germans finished their genocide by visiting each house individually to search for people hiding in terror. Bodies were found throughout the village still inside buildings and having been shot in the head. A mother, father and two children were found charred inside the baker’s oven. It defies belief that lives could end in this way. Hours later the soldiers left, having failed to destroy all the evidence. Save for the bodies that have been buried, Oradour-sur-Glane is left today as it was found.
Walking into Oradour-sur-Glane, I was shocked by its unembellished rawness; as if I was entering a sacred place where everyone spoke in hushed whispers. The ruins have been left untouched because future generations would be incapable of absorbing the magnitude of what happened here on 10th June 1944 should it have been razed to the ground. Typescript alone isn’t enough to tell of the atrocity. Over the years the words would surely fade and corrode the story of Oradour as surely as the metal work left behind is rusting and crumbling today. Some things need to be seen and touched in order to truly feel the horror.
Nature now invades the ruins of the buildings and the everyday items left behind. Tiny purple flowers weave their way through rusting Singer sewing machines and cooking pots from the families' last meals are left next to fireplaces. Birds peck amongst old machinery and the grills of decaying log burners. I walked beneath telegraph poles and tram lines. Where once rattled tram carriages carrying chattering townspeople to and from Limoges, the wires now hang limply swaying in the breeze.
I followed the main road. Houses were charred black from fire. Modern plaques informed visitors what the buildings used to be. A café. A hairdressers. The post office. The doctor's surgery. A school.
The post office
Front gardens and pathways lead to shattered homes. Half demolished inner walls exposed the layout of rooms that had once been adorned with pictures and ornaments. Rubble was strewn everywhere and even decorative tiles still lay where they had fallen seventy years earlier. Weeds, grasses and flowers were interlaced between rusting bed frames that had fallen to ground level when the bedroom floors collapsed in the fires.
When I reached the village square and saw the doctor’s car parked close-by, the sight made me catch my breath. I’d read so much about what had happened that day and here I was, looking inside the doctor’s car parked on the edge of the fairground. It must have been a strange sight to see hundreds of his patients huddled together. The rusting shell of his Peugeot lists to one side, its tyres long since perished, its thin circular steering wheel in the position the doctor had parked it for the last time.
The doctor's car where he left it on the day of the massacre
The doctor's car
Homes surrounding the village green still show hints of their beauty. Ornate railings, carved window shutters and elaborate mirror surrounds now twisted and bent in the inferno. A mature tree stood in the centre of the green, its canopy offering a circle of shade to visitors. Some houses were less destroyed than others, giving more clues to their previous inhabitants. The metal skeletons of tables, chairs and bed frames, ornaments, Singer sewing machines, cooking implements, bicycles, mirror frames and cooking scales. Cars parked in garages.
I followed the old tram lines along more roads where upper floors of houses were castellated with jagged charred beams, tiles and exposed bricks. I could almost sense the horrifying randomness of suffering inflicted on these streets. I passed the bakers and gazed in silence at the rusting oven where a family was discovered. The butchers shop still had the skeletal remains of its awnings that protected its produce from the sunshine. Weighing scales were decaying next to decorated tiles, their colour still vibrant after seventy hot summers and bitter winters.
The butcher's shop
The butcher's weighing scales
Next I visited the barns where the men had been taken, their grey stone shells now overgrown with plants and flowers. Other visitors stood close by, everyone of us silent in thought.
I turned a corner and standing in a small dusty square, stood Oradour's church. A tall mature tree stood sentinel in front of it and I wondered as I walked beneath it, if the women sighed with momentary relief as they passed through its shade on that hot June day in 1944.
I needed to stop and wait beneath a rusting figure of Christ on the cross before walking up the steps into this holy place. The horrific images I’d read about had taken place a few feet in front of me. Here where I stood, mothers had pushed their babies in prams or guided their small children by their hands; generations of strong women taking their last footsteps. They’d stumbled over these steps as Germans aimed their guns.
I stepped inside. It was smaller than I’d imagined. My footsteps echoed in the silence only broken by birdsong due to the roof having long since been destroyed. My overall feeling was naturally a weight of intense sadness, but also a deep sense that I was intruding. So many final excruciating breaths were taken here; so much pain.
I was drawn inexorably towards the altar. A small mass of rusting tangled metal lay before it. As I got closer, I saw that it was the remains of a baby’s pram.
A marble memorial with the names of the local men who’d fought and died in WW1 hung on a wall, now peppered with bullets; their monument defiled in WW2.
The church bell lay on the floor having fallen from the tower in the inferno. It laid twisted and unrecognisable, testament to the intense heat.
The confessional box miraculously stood unscathed. The bodies of two suffocated small children had been discovered here wrapped in an embrace.
Oradour reminded me of a visit I made to Pompeii. Although the aftermath is similar to look at, what is most difficult to understand is that mankind's violence destroyed the village of Oradour, not nature's. But how do you end a blog post which tells of such human cruelty? I don't want to offer platitudes or repeat rhetoric from past articles. Like most traumatic events, people cope and pray in their own way. I've found a poem called, Chanson de la Caravane d'Oradour, by Louis Aragon dated 1949. Here's one verse. (apologies for lack of accents in appropriate places - blogspot didn't enable me to make them.)
Que nos caravanes s'avancent
Vers ce lieu marque par le sang
Une plaie au coeur de la France
Y rappelle a l'indifference
Le massacre des innocents
Translated as best I can
As our caravans advance
Towards this blood-stained place
A wound in the heart of France
Remember the indifference shown
As the innocents were massacred.