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For those of us living today, almost 70 years after the end of the Second World War, it is almost impossible to envisage the atrocities which took place. A visit to Oradour-sur-Glane brings home, in a way no film or photograph could, the unspeakable evil that one human can inflict on another.

Oradour-sur-Glane Street

Oradour-sur-Glane Street

Oradour-sur-Glane House

Remains of a house

Frozen in time to remember

Frozen in time to remember

Oradour-sur-Glane Village Entrance

Entrance to the memorial village

Oradour-sur-Glane Memorial

Just four days after the Normandy Landings took place, on June 10th 1944, German forces entered Oradour-sur-Glane and gathered together the villagers in the main square. What happened next is unimaginable.

Believing they were being gathered to have their identity papers examined, the people of Oradour felt little unease at being brought together in this way. One survivor recalled that, even as the men of the village were taken to six nearby barns, they continued to laugh and joke, discussing the following day’s football match and other such trifles of life.

The women and children were locked in the church and the village looted - traumatic, certainly, but not unheard of during the war years. It was the events which followed that will forever live in the memories of the very few who survived.

When the menfolk arrived at the barn they were faced with machine guns. They were shot, not to kill, but in the legs, so that they would die slowly and couldn’t run. After they had been gunned down, the bodies were piled on top of each other and set alight. Those who survived recall hiding underneath the pile of burning bodies until the German soldiers were gone. In total, 196 men entered the barns, of these only 6 survived the massacre. One victim was killed as he tried to escape the burning building prematurely.

If the story of Oradour-sur-Glane ended there, it would be traumatic enough. However, what happened next defies belief. In the church, 248 women and 205 children were gathered. The German soldiers ignited an incendiary device inside the building, intended to gas those inside but, when that failed, they entered the church and used machine guns and hand grenades instead. They then piled wood on their victims, many of whom were still alive, and set it alight. Those who had survived thus far were killed as they tried to escape the blaze and, by nightfall, only Marguerite Rouffanche remained alive, hiding under pea bushes behind the church. She had been shot five times.

As the killings took place, another group of soldiers searched the remainder of the town for those who had evaded the initial round up. One old man was burned to death in his bed, while others were killed and their bodies deposited into the village well. That night, many parts of Oradour were engulfed in flames, as much of the village was razed to the ground. In total, 642 villagers had been massacred in just a few short hours.

To this day, no one fully understands why Oradour-sur Glane was targeted in this way. Some historians think it possible that the village was confused with Oradour-sur-Vayres, where it was believed kidnapped German officer Helmut Kampfe was being held by the Resistance. Others believe it was a response to the events of D-Day which occurred just four days earlier, while there are those who believe that the village was razed as an example to other villages who may have been considering revolting against the occupying forces. What is certain is that the German soldiers left without ever uttering a word as to why they were there.

Several days later, those villagers who had escaped the atrocity returned to Oradour to bury their dead. Bodies were still piled in the church, having failed to burn fully, cars were abandoned in the street and a charred pushchair lay at the foot of the altar.

After the war, President Charles de Gaulle visited the site. He decreed that the village should remain preserved exactly as it was - a memorial to all those who perished there and a monument to the suffering of civilians in war. Today it is the only site of its kind in Western Europe.

Visiting the village is a sobering experience. Silent streets and the charred remains of more than 300 houses bear witness to the events of 10th June 1944. The pushchair still lies in front of the altar and the doctor’s car sits abandoned, a rusting shell in the village square. Plaques from the 1950’s identify the sites of the barns where the village men were taken, their age adding to the poignancy of the events which happened there. Occasionally, a sign bears the unnecessary word ‘silence’ but there is little need - those who visit Oradour need no reminding to be respectful there.

At the entrance to the village is a museum, the Centre de la Memoire, dedicated to the villagers and offering an insight into the history behind the massacre. The museum helps give life to the men and women whose names are inscribed on the black tablets behind the memorial to the dead in Oradour cemetery.

In September 2013, German President Joachim Gauck visited the site accompanied by Francois Hollande, the President of France, and Robert Hebras, one of the few survivors of the massacre. Like many others who visit the site, the German President was visibly moved. The visit was a significant acknowledgement of reconciliation between the two countries, although as Robert Hebras later stated: “Any earlier would have been too soon.”

A visit to Oradour-sur-Glane may be far from the usual trips taken by foreign tourists .There is no beautiful chateau, no fun fair and no fabulous view. It is instead, a thought-provoking experience that will remain in your memory forever.

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