I did not know, when I moved to France, of a little village named Oradour-sur-Glane. I want to, for my ease of thinking and typing, to shorten this to OSG, but, that would be disrespectful.
I usually write with a glib sense of humor, some tongue in cheek. I think I got this from my father. There is no room for that here.
As a grade school child I remember watching the evening news in our den with my parents. The Vietnam War. Cease Fire. So many times I heard this chant, and had no idea what it meant. Impatient for dinner to be served.
Growing up and summering in East Hampton, my mother would take me alone, no sisters present, and let me buy books for my summer reading. She recognized my need for quiet, for organized text, for a story. One time I chose: When Hitler Stole Pink Rabbit. My first introduction to the conflict of WWII.
“Down this road, on a summer day in 1944…The soldiers came. Nobody lives here now. They stayed only a few hours. When they had gone, the community which had lived for a thousand years…was dead.” This quote comes from the opening of The World at War, narrated by Sir Lawrence Olivier.
This is not a history lesson. Any one of you can google and learn. But most accounts, to make the sequence of events more clear, have broken this day into time segments. There is no one person on record, who kept an actual written documentation in a single, united framework.
This community sits on the southern side of the Monts de Blonds. And on Saturday, June 10, 1944, a German Waffen SS detachment of about 200 troops arrived and sealed off the village. This was during midday, when the french were home eating their main meal, and the children, many from the surrounding countryside farms, were in school. The village was busier than usual this particular Saturday, because the distribution of the tobacco ration was to take place, and there was to be a school health inspection. Initially I was baffled that children were in school, but that is the way is was in France, in 1944.
Upon an order to the Mayor and town crier, the entire village was to gather in the town square for identity checks, which did not cause alarm, as the area was largely held by the german occupation. All, including 6 cyclists passing through the village, had necessary documents.
As children were led to the assemblage, a 7 year old boy, acting on instructions by his mother long before this day ever came, tried to gather his 2 sisters and flee the school, into the woods. They wanted their mother and would not join him. Young Roger Godfrin ran from the elementary school, was shot at, and “played dead” to escape being killed. At this tender age, he was able to withstand being kicked at, and successfully feigned death. He remained still for several hours, amidst the ensuing brutality and chaos.
After the population was assembled, the women and children were moved off to “wait in the church” while the village was searched for “arms, ammunition and prohibited merchandise.” They had no knowledge that their men were then being divided into 6 groups and led to various barns and sheds within the village, with rows of machine guns already in place. Premeditation at its very worst. It was approximately 4pm, and a signal was given for the massacre to begin.
The men were fired at below the knees. Then, when unable to move, covered in fuel, and the buildings set on fire.
The women and children were locked within the church, and a large incendiary devise outside, was ignited.
Only 5 men escaped, after laying under burning bodies, by working their way through some rabbit hutches. Only 1 woman, despite being shot as she climbed out a church window, survived. Crawling under pea bushes and remaining still until she was rescued the next morning.
A few children, hidden in the village hotel made their escape, were seen by an SS soldier, and let go. At approximately 6pm, little Roger Godfrin reached the river Glane, and safety. But not after coming upon an SS soldier who said one word to him, “run” and seeing a well loved local dog, Bobby, shot and killed.
Accounts know that soldiers then looted the village, continued to stoke the massive fire outside of the church to ensure the obliteration of the women and children, and then razed the rest of the village.
Of note is that this atrocity was under no direct order, and the village had been far from any center of conflict, was not, nor never had been an active resistance stronghold. And we know of only 2 german soldiers who showed mercy. We know of a baby that was crucified. What war did and does to people…how can we make sense of any of it?
Howard and I visited this Martyr Museum on a brisk, but blue sky day. We drove up through the Blond Mountains, filled with majestic evergreens, and I remember passing a brocante that I wanted to be sure to stop back at. Not knowing I would be devastated, wobbly, wiping tears for several mornings, upon waking. Oradour-sur-Glane is haunting. It is reverent. We spoke in whispers, not wanting to awaken the 643 fallen villager’s heavenly slumber.
I found myself wondering, for days after, what types of lives and loves were snuffed.
I thought of the parents in the countryside, waiting to see their child come through the fields, from school. Columbine, Sandy Hook, Parkland. History does indeed, repeat itself.
I thought of little Roger. At such a young age, adhereing to his mother’s instructions, that if the soldiers ever came he should immediately run to the woods. He had to improvise, and play possum for hours. Instantly wise, beyond his years.
I wondered, and still do, at the hands of such evil, did anyone’s faith fail them? Did they detach from their higher power in their final terrifying moments, or did they cling to it even more so?
There is a Chinese proverb…a bird does not sing because it has an answer, it sings because it has a song.
And a silent bird can be attributed to a sense of danger, with hopes of disguising its presence. On the day that we walked through this war memorial, where time is standing still, even as the moss and lichen march on, the silence was deafening.
Charles de Gaulle mandated that Oradour-sur-Glane never be rebuilt. Sir Lawrence Olivier concluded his narration with, “Its ruins are a memorial. Its martyrdom stands for thousands upon thousands of other martyrdoms in Poland, in Russia, in Burma, in China, in a World at War…”
And now. Ukraine. Souviens Toi–Remember!
Post Script: Here, in France, the memory of WWII is deeply preserved. Virtually every city, village, and hamlet has a memorial. They are often kept up with weekly fresh floral arrangements. And I can say that I am welcomed. Rural France has not forgotten the American and British sacrifices made on their soil.
Some random photos from what once was a lovely, lively, typical French village in the Haute Vienne.
5 thoughts on “We Need to Remember”
Lesley and I visited Oradour-sur-Glane some years ago. A very moving and harrowing experience to feel and think of that dreadful day in June 1944. The memorials and plaques throughout the ruined remains and especially in the cementry brought tears to our eyes. Your writing reminds us of something that must never to be forgotten. RIP the 643.
So profound….as I am reading this I am sitting on the edge of a sandbox conversing with a woman and her 2 year old daughter who are from Ukraine. Tragic.
And here we have history repeating itself in Ukraine. Just as evil. We tried to go to Oradour-sur-Glane when we lived in Cromac. But they didn’t allow dogs. I walked the perimeter a bit. It was chilling to be there and attempt to imagine what kind of animals could be so depraved as to slaughter an entire village with such ruthlessness. I will never understand it. I want to go back, perhaps next fall, sans pups and honor the memory. Thanks for your impressions, poignant words, and pictures.
Very well written, albeit harrowing to know this and too many other senseless wars are occurring.
Such a tragedy. Thank you for sharing.