Oradour-sur-Glane, France – July, 2011
Rob and I had never heard of the little village of Oradour-sur-Glane until we visited the site during a tour from Paris to the south of France. By the time we left that afternoon, the tragic story of the town and the massacre of its people were seared indelibly into our memory.
On June 10, 1944, Nazi soldiers invaded the quiet town of Oradour-sur-Glane in the Haute-Vienne region of France. The soldiers were seeking revenge for the capture of a high ranking SS officer.
All villagers, from a baby of one-week-old to those in their nineties, and a group of six who had the misfortune to be bicycling through Oradour that morning, were ordered to report to the village square – “to have their papers checked.” A few suspicious souls hid in their homes and escaped into nearby woods. Most, however, complied. Once in the square, the citizens were accused of hiding weapons and told they would be held while soldiers searched their houses. Men were herded into barns around town. Women and children were taken into the church.
Upon a signal from their commanders, the soldiers first shot the men in the legs so they could not escape, then doused them in fuel and lit the barns on fire. The church interior was also set ablaze. Women who tried to escape through the tiny windows were shot. The entire village was then torched and reduced to rubble.
Six hundred forty-two people were slaughtered that day. Twenty-six survived: twenty who had slipped away when the soldiers arrived, five men who crawled from the back of a barn, and one woman who was shot as she jumped from the narrow window at the back of the church but succeeded in crawling into a garden to hide.
Following the war, France decided to maintain the village just as the Nazis left it, as a testament to the atrocities of war and as a memorial to the “Martyrs of Oradour.”
Rob and I read the history of this incident in the museum that stands just outside the ruined village, then walked up the path to see the preserved town.
Scorched and crumbling walls of stone buildings stand as evidence to the events of that day. Plaques on the walls still advertise former businesses – the dentist’s office, the garage, the post office.
My husband and I walked silently through the town’s ruined streets, stopping here and there to view remnants of daily life: a burned out car, the bent and rusted frame of a bicycle still propped against a wall, an iron bed frame, a sewing machine.
Most horrible of all were the skeletal remains of a baby carriage in front of the bullet-scarred church altar.
As we continued through the streets, the gloomy grey skies contributed to our overwhelming sadness. When we reached the cemetery on the little hill at the back of the town, where many of the gravestones contain photographs of both adults and tiny children who were killed that day, I could no longer contain my tears.
The bus ride to our next destination was silent.
I wondered as we rode why Oradour-sur-Glane is unfamiliar to so many of us outside of France. Perhaps because it was a small incident compared to the death of millions. Perhaps because it involved no major battles or well-known historic figures. For me, that makes it even more appalling…a peaceful village doing its best to maintain normal life amid the chaos of war, decimated in the space of a few hours.
When I told the story of this tragic village, a friend commented, “We go on vacation to relax and have a good time. We don’t go on trips to be depressed. Why should we visit sites like this?”
Why, indeed? The large sign at the entrance to the ruins of Oradour-sur-Glane says “Souviens-toi. Remember.” This echoes another saying associated with the Holocaust, “Forgive, but never forget.” But the reality is, we do forget. Perhaps some knowledge is so unspeakable, we choose to put it into a hidden compartment of our minds to preserve our own sanity. It’s easy to do. By that evening, our tour group was laughing again under the sunset’s glow on the yellow stone buildings of Sarlat.
This is normal, even healthy. But truly meaningful travel – travel that encompasses the full spectrum of history and human experience – is more than an excuse to see famous sights, to enjoy new foods, to “relax and have a good time.” The privilege of travel perhaps brings with it a special responsibility. When our travels take us to the sites of the darker events of the past, we can return home with the stories that help the world remember.