Saturday, February 6, 2021

Oradour-sur-Glane – A WWII Tragedy


Oradour-sur-Glane – Souviens toi                                                                                                                            Haute Vienne region of France, 400 km. (250 miles) south of Paris                                                                                        Sometimes travel takes the traveler to dark side of history.

Rob and I had never heard of the little village of Oradour-sur-Glane until we visited the site during our tour from Paris to the south of France.  By the time we left that afternoon, the tragic WWII story of the town and the massacre of its people were seared indelibly into our memory.

We began our visit in the Centre de la Memoire, the museum just outside the village.  The museum is built mostly underground, and the low outer walls are cut through with angular red structures echoing the broken red walls we would find in the town.  Inside the museum, massive cement and silver metal walls were filled floor to ceiling with photographs of the people of the town going about their daily activities, the rise of the Nazi party, the village after its destruction, and finally a long wall filled with the faces of the people who died there.   

Centre de la Memoire

From the testimony of the few survivors of the massacre and other war records, historians have been able to document the events of that day.  It was June, 1944.  World War II in Europe was nearing an end.  The June 6th D-Day invasion of Normandy had just occurred, and the Nazi soldiers in central France began their 645 km (400-mile) march north to help defend the coast. Along the way, they were frequently engaged in skirmishes with members of the French resistance.  During one of these, the resistance succeeded in capturing Helmut Kämpfe, a high-ranking Nazi commander.  Adolf Diekmann, commander of the Nazi troops in nearby Limoges, received a message that Kämpfe was being held in the town of Oradour-sur-Glane.  Tragically for the villagers of Oradour, the message was incorrect.  Some historians have speculated that Kämpfe was instead captured in the town of Oradour-sur-Vayres, about 15 miles away, but on June 10, Diekmann’s battalion invaded the wrong village, seeking revenge for Kämpfe’s capture.

After watching a short film about the incident, Rob and I walked up the path and into a small maze of streets lined with roofless and crumbling red brick and grey stone buildings, blackened with soot, which have been preserved as evidence to the events of that day.  We started in the Champ de Foire, the town marketplace, where all villagers, including 193 children, and a group of six who had the misfortune to be bicycling through Oradour that morning, had been ordered to report, “to have their papers checked.”   A few suspicious souls hid in their homes and escaped into nearby woods, but witnesses indicated later that most were not concerned, just surprised by the sudden arrival of the Nazi soldiers. 

Once assembled, the citizens were accused of hiding weapons and told they would be held while soldiers searched their houses. Men were separated into six groups and herded into barns and garages around town. Women and children were taken into the church.

Rob and I stood in the square and imagined it filled with the bewildered villagers, from a one-week-old baby to people in their nineties, chattering with their neighbors about the sudden disruption to their mid-day meal and unaware of what the day would bring.

We then walked, speaking rarely, through the town’s ruined streets, stopping here and there to view remnants of daily life: a scorched car, the bent and rusted frame of a bicycle still propped against a wall, an iron bed frame standing in a bedroom that no longer existed, a sewing machine behind a stone bearing photos of the family who had once used it.  

The original plaques on some of the walls still advertise former businesses – “Dentiste,Mme. Reignier,” “Garage, H. Desourteax,”  “Forgeron, J.B. Beaulieu.”

Newer signs indicated the locations of other atrocities of that day.  Rob and I gripped each other’s hand tightly as we stopped in front of one of the barns where some of the men had been held.   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.    A sign on the wall said, “Here - A Place of Torture.  A group of men was massacred and burned by the Nazis."  

At the lower end of the village stands the stone church where the women and children were taken.  At 4:00 in the afternoon, soldiers set off an explosion in the doorway of the church that filled the room with a black smoke and sent the women and children into a panic.  They were mercilessly shot as they tried to escape through the tiny windows behind the altar.  In front of that bullet-scarred altar rests one of the most horrible reminders of that dreadful day – the skeletal remains of a baby carriage.  Rob gasped quietly, saying, “I just can’t comprehend the inhumanity of the soldiers.  How can anyone disconnect their feelings when murdering a small child?”

Following the murder of the town's residents, the soldiers set fires to destroy both the buildings and the bodies of their victims. 

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 top of the town, where many of the gravestones contain photographs of both adults and tiny children, we could no longer contain our tears. 

                              Rob stands over the crypt containing the bones of the many victims who were so badly burned that they could not be identified.  

Six hundred forty-two people were slaughtered that day. Twenty-six survived: nineteen who had slipped away when the soldiers arrived, six men who crawled through rabbit hutches at the back of a barn, and one woman, Madame Maguerite Rouffanche, who was shot five time as she jumped from the narrow window behind the altar of the church but managed to crawl into a garden to hide.

Following the war, French President Charles de Gaulle decreed that France would 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.”

The tour bus ride to our next destination was silent, each of us wrapped in our own pensive reflections about the day.

As we rode, I wondered why the tragedy in 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 historical 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 sad. Why should we visit depressing places 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; it is normal, even healthy. By that evening, our tour group was laughing again under the sunset’s glow on the yellow stone buildings of Sarlat.

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 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.

For an excellent history of the events of the day, see:  History of Oradour-sur-Glane on June 10, 1944



  1. Such a sad story. You’ve honoured the victims with your well-written story Joan. Thanks for sharing

  2. I've traveled in France but had not heard of Oradour-sur-Glane and the tragedy that befell the village. Thanks, Joan, for this moving account and for your reminder of our responsibility as citizens of the world. As always, your photos are stunning. xoA

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