In 1944 on 10th June, the tiny village of Oradour-sur-Glane was destroyed by the Nazis and its inhabitants, all 642 of them, massacred. No specific reason is known. General de Gaulle decreed that the village should remain as it was at the end of that day in order to bear witness for the rest of mankind to the consequences of the barbarity of war and in remembrance of those killed.
We approach through the modern Centre de la Memoire, passing a gallery of pictures of those who died, some blank spaces where a photograph isn’t available. As we climb the steps up to the village a large sign leaning against a tree demands: silence. The brochure requests phones be turned off. People speak in hushed tones and whispers, children as subdued as their parents. The only other sound is the squeak of a broken pipe swinging in the wind. Even the birds are absent.
We step reverently along roads lined with collapsed buildings. A tramline runs along the main street, its rails red with rust and weed encrusted, and loose telegraph wires hang overhead. On broken walls faded signs mark buildings, and decaying contents confirm their previous life: twisted sewing machines in the couturier, the skeleton of a large set of scales in the boulangerie. Alongside fragmented walls that once housed their drivers, rusting hulks of cars crumble gradually into the ground.
At the far end of the village lies the church, roofless, where the women and children were massacred. Religious symbols are still evident but no God could have saved them. A sign, etched in stone against the passage of time, marks it as a massacre site, as do others in places where the men were executed. All end: recueillez-vous*.
In the cemetery where the victims were entombed lie two small glass coffins containing what initially seem like the ashes of a fire. Look closer and you see human bones. There is no sanitising here; you are meant to know the horror.
It’s a sobering contrast to other villages whose streets we’ve walked, marvelling at the age of them, the buildings centuries old, the streets designed for horse and trap rather than car. This village should have been no different, shutters closed against the heat of the sun but teeming with life behind them. Here, people went about their daily lives, bakers baked, farmers farmed, teachers taught. Aside from the horror, an aura of sadness and waste hangs over the ruins of homes and lives. It’s not a happy couple of hours but, like our visit to the war cemeteries in Belgium some years ago, we’re glad we came.
*take a silent moment to mourn.