In a few days people in Britain, America, and France, especially those in Normandy, will observe the 76th anniversary of D-Day, June 6th 1944, the Normandy Invasion. Four days later, on the 10th of June, a far more grim 76th anniversary will go unnoticed in Britain and America. In France, there will be remembrances but there will be no celebrations.
Four days after D-Day a small, insignificant town in a rural area that had largely been untouched by the war was suddenly, unexpectedly surrounded and cut off from the rest of the world. It was sacked, its population murdered, the town burned to the ground by an SS unit that was ostensibly on its way to Normandy. The town was Oradour sur Glane. The destruction of the village was the worst massacre of a town in France by the Germans in WWII. The ruins have been preserved, and today Oradour is called the Town of Martyrs.To this day no one knows for certain why Oradour was targeted. Some speculate that it was in response to activity by French resistance, perhaps in retaliation for the killing of a German officer in the area. If so, it was the wrong town.
What is certain is that Oradour was surrounded and the population from the outskirts herded into town. Men and older boys were taken into barns and shot. Women and children were herded into the church, grenades thrown in and the building set on fire. At least one elderly person, infirm, lying in bed and unable to comply with orders to gather in the street, was shot in his bed. 642 people were murdered, among them some 240 children. Then the town was set on fire.
It is horrifying to consider that the number of innocent dead in Oradour, nearly 650, is the number of villages that suffered a similar fate in Russia and the Ukraine at the same time on the Eastern Front.
About 50 people, most of them children, were able to escape the massacre when their parents had them run into nearby woods and hide at the first sight of the Germans. Several years ago a friend who lives in Caen, and today guides tours of the Invasion beaches, startled me when he said his grandmother was one of the children who managed to escape.
Oradour’s ruins have been preserved, and a new town built across the road. Today you enter through a tunnel from an excellent visitor’s center, onto a street where a small sign says simply, “Silence.”
It is not a hamlet. This was once a bustling, vibrant town. What remains is a ghost town of charred ruins and ghostly artifacts; the rusting remains of the Mayor’s automobile, children’s bicycles and toys, a sewing machine.
While the destruction of Oradour was taking place, a train arrived on these tracks. Everyone was taken from the train and died with the people of Oradour sur Glane.
The French do not want the memory what happened here, and indeed in all of France during the war, to fade from their cultural memory. We have seen a troop of young French military cadets brought here and they, like everyone who has ever been here, walked in stunned silence, trying to grasp and make some sense of what happened. But it is different for them than for us. Their visit to Oradour has a deeper meaning, because it is to remind them not only of what took place in the past, but to instill in them their duty to never let it happened again.
Visiting Oradour sur Glane is a sobering experience. It does not make for a happy day. But every time there is something new to see or to ponder. It is always silent. The place feels empty. Most often, the only sounds are footsteps. And sometimes, faintly, sobbing.