It is difficult to write about Oradour-sur-Glane, even more challenging to do so without resorting to cliches, but I will try.
In 1944, Oradour-sur-Glane was a prosperous village of about 350 people. Its location, on the River Glane about fifteen miles from Limoges, made it a popular destination for picnicking and fishing.
On 10 June, four days after the Normandy landings, the town was bustling with activity. Its population had grown with the arrival of refugees from other areas, school was in session (as was customary in France until early this century), and monthly tobacco rations were being handed out to the area’s residents.
Before I recount the day’s events, it’s important you understand that many French citizens resisted the occupation of their country. Some in the Resistance knew D-Day was approaching, and to try to ensure the success of that operation, the Maquis were making life as miserable as possible for the occupying forces. There were attacks on German divisions, there were German soldiers being killed by Resistance groups in the area around Oradour, and the Nazis had begun to respond to such activity with ever increasing savagery.
According to the Holocaust Encyclopedia “those who had seen service on the eastern front and whose response to partisan activity had been conditioned by the extraordinary brutality of anti-partisan measures there, radicalized and intensified responses to real and perceived resistance activity.”
The 2nd Waffen Panzer Division Das Reich was one such troop, having seen two years of combat action including against the partisans (Resistance) on the eastern front. And it was they who approached Oradour on 10 June 1944.
Led by SS Major Adolf Diekmann, the division rounded up the town’s inhabitants on the “fairground” or village green.
First, they claimed to be checking identification cards. Then, the Nazis said they were searching for weapons. And finally, they began to separate the men from the women and children.
The latter were herded into the church, the former divided into six groups which are moved into various buildings while the town was searched.
Around five, an explosion served as a signal to commence firing machine guns at the groups of men. They shot until all the bodies lay still.
At five, soldiers entered the church, placing a large chest trailing a long fuse near the altar, and then retreating, lighting the fuse before shutting the door. The chest exploded creating a suffocating smoke. The women scrambled frantically toward the door, eventually ramming through, only to be met by machine gun fire.
One woman, Mme. Rouffanche, survived by somehow climbing on the altar and jumping out a window, surviving the ten foot drop to the embankment below. Another woman followed, handing out her baby before jumping, but the child’s cries attracted the attention of soldiers who shot all three, killing the mother and infant. Mme. Rouffanche was injured but managed to crawl into a garden where she spent the night among the pea plants.
In the end, 642 civilians — the youngest only eight months old — were killed. Six people survived.
The Nazis then looted the village, burning the remains of the dead as well as the structures of the town.
A little later, the tram from Limoges arrived. The soldiers forced the passengers off the train and sent it back empty. Strangely, they held the passengers for two hours, warned them not to enter the village, and then released them to find their way home.
The tram tracks are still there, and the station.
The village is still there too, or what remains of it. In 1946, the French government proclaimed the whole town a memorial and gave orders for it to be preserved.
Below is the official German version of the events as relayed by the Holocaust Encyclopedia.
“The German Army High Command … offered this explanation to the State Secretary in the Vichy Ministry of Defense, General Eugène Bridoux, after Vichy diplomats had sent a formal protest note that contained an accurate account of the events of June 10. The German explanation stated that:
- The men of the village died during the fight
- The fight had been initiated from the village
- The women and children had taken refuge inside the church and died as the result of an explosion from an nearby insurgent ammunition supply dump that ignited the inside of the church.“
As I tried to translate the signs of the village — “Ah, this was a bakery, and here was a dentist” — I couldn’t help but be struck by the ordinariness of the lives that were snuffed out suddenly and seemingly without reason, certainly without justification.
There were other signs.
The memorial also has a crypt filled with the daily bits and pieces found among the remains, the sort of items a person might carry in their pocket.
There were also children’s toys.
Oradour was just a town that fell in the path of the 2nd Waffen Panzer Division Das Reich on their way to Normandy.
To walk its streets was to struggle to comprehend the magnitude of what happened there. Worse, to do so two weeks ago was to be forced to reflect on the likelihood of it happening again.
Now, two weeks later, after seeing the photos and reading the stories from Mariupol and Bucha, I know that it has, and still, I cannot comprehend … not any of it, not then, and not now.
There is no magic there, or mayhem, only futility and loss.