France remembers Oradour, a WWII massacre and the martyred village left behind

By Alison Hird - RFI
France  Alison HirdRFI
JUN 10, 2023 LISTEN
© Alison Hird/RFI

On 10 June 1944, SS soldiers destroyed the village of Oradour-sur-Glane, slaughtering 643 civilians. Nearly 80 years later, with the death of the last surviving witness and the ruins crumbling out of recognition, how should the massacre be memorialised? 

The name Oradour-sur-Glane, a village in central France, is engrained in the collective memory as the biggest massacre of civilians in France during World War II. A total of  244 women, 207 children and 192 men were rounded up and shot, or burned alive, by members of the SS Panzer division “Das Reich”.

It was an indiscriminate massacre of everyone that happened to be in the village on that afternoon. Just six people survived.

The timing, however, was not random. Four days after D-Day, German forces were obsessed with terrorising people in areas where the Resistance was active. So desperate, that they targeted a village with no known links to the maquis.

“There was no active armed Resistance in Oradour,” says Robert Pike, author of a book about the massacre, The Silent Village. “It was a place of innocence but also ordinariness. It happened to be in the wrong place at the wrong time.”

Before leaving, the SS pillaged the village and set it on fire to wipe it off the map.

But General Charles de Gaulle had other ideas. In November that year his provisional government declared Oradour a “martyred village”. And a few months later, it was agreed that Oradour would be conserved in its state of destruction as a permanent reminder of Nazi barbarity.

Walls were built around the charred ruins and the village was effectively frozen in time.

Listen to a report from the martyred village in the Spotlight on France podcast

Prior to the massacre, Oradour was a pretty, rural village, with a tramway linking it to the town of Limoges. Signs on some of the ruined shopfronts with names like quincaillerie (ironmonger), charron (wheelwright) or sabotier (clog maker) reflect its vibrant local economy at the time.

The decision to preserve this idyllic image of Oradour was deeply political.

"The whole idea of the village being martyred was very much part of the post-war, Gaullist story," says Pike.

"It was an example of France's suffering under the German or Nazi boot – a representation of an idyllic France, the image of the republic as De Gaulle wanted it to be seen.

"In  those years and decades after the war, the word 'martyr' served its purpose."

Ravaged by time

The martyred village has become a living monument to death. Some 300,000 visitors wander through the ten hectares of ruins each year, a quarter of them from outside France.

"We've all said just how almost surreal it is, the tragedy of it," says Mark Grinney, a Brit exploring the cemetery with a group of friends from Hull in the UK. "But I think it's beautiful that it's remembered and the people in the village are remembered and it's looked after so well. It's really moving."

But visitors are increasingly having to rely on their imagination. Battered by the elements and the passage of time, the ruined houses and shops are a shadow of their former selves, while the rain has washed away most traces of the soot that resulted from the blazing inferno.

Rusting vehicles are sinking into the ground as their chassis fall apart, and plants are eating into the walls.

“I remember as a child the house still had its back wall,” says Benoît Sadry, head of the association for families of victims of the massacre, pointing to his great-aunt's home in the central square where the round-up occurred. She and six of the family's seven children died in the massacre.

“The walls are collapsing and vegetation is taking over,” Sadry notes. “It's dangerous, something needs to be done quickly.”

Ensuring the site's safety is important, but that's not the only issue: the physical memory of the massacre is being lost.

Sadry underlines that the bullet holes on the back wall of the Laudy barn, where many of the men were shot, are no longer visible. "And yet this is a significant part in showing how, in just a few hours, a mass killing took place in the entire village."

If Oradour is still to be here in 40 years' time, money has to be ploughed in, he says.

Last year the state agreed to finance works to consolidate the church – where 451 women and children were shot or burned alive – at a cost of around €500,000.

Sadry and other families insist the whole village needs conserving and are launching a public fundraising campaign along the lines of the one for Notre Dame Cathedral.

'History with a human face'

There is no question, so far, of rebuilding Oradour's ruins, but neither is there unanimity on battling against the passage of time. Could nature simply be left to run its course?

The question is easier to discuss since 97-year-old Robert Hebras, the last of the six survivors of the massacre, died in February this year.

Hébras was relentless in keeping the memory of Oradour alive, showing school parties around the ten-hectare site, giving conferences and writing books. He would call for a minute's silence during the annual commemorations on 10 June.

“It will be different this year,” Sadry notes, “but Robert Hébras spoke to a lot of young people;  so long as they can explain what happened, his voice will not be lost. ”

As the ruins diminish, Oradour's remembrance centre is taking on an even greater role. Opened in 1999, it houses the entrance to the martyred village and prepares visitors to make sense of the ruins.

Hundreds of black-and-white photos line the corridor leading to the village.

“ It's history with a human face, not just numbers, ” says  historian Babeth Robert, head of the memorial centre.

“ It's no longer 643 victims, it's that woman with that face, it's that child with that strand of hair in his eyes. I t's very important that visitors come to the village having seen these faces. ”

There are a few gaps in the line-up. “We still have to find 80 photos,” she says.

The remembrance centre is working towards enlarging its scope beyond the walls of the martyred village.

A new permanent exhibition, slated for late 2026, will shift the focus away from the SS and the events of 10 June 1944 and towards "the victims, the inhabitants, life in the village both before, and above all after, the massacre”, says Robert.

Life in Oradour 

The aftermath of the massacre was indeed hard. Families of survivors were housed in temporary wooden shelters nearby, and then between 1947 and 1953 the state built a new village in the shadow of its martyred sister – one new house for every home destroyed.

But despite indoor bathrooms and other modern amenities, it took time for people to return. And those that did observed a form of collective mourning – widows wore black and residents refused to paint their houses in bright colours.

"It wasn't easy to live next to a destroyed village with such heavy mourning," says Sadry, who is also the village's deputy mayor. 

It took 20 years to rebuild some kind of social and economic life, he adds, and having lost a generation of children, it wasn't until 1964 that they had enough young people to form a football team again. 

But over the years new people have moved to the village and only 20 percent of Oradour's current population are, like Sadry, descendants of victims.

“The perception of the martyred village has changed a lot with newcomers who've settled here, it's very reassuring," he says. "A generation of young parents are saying, 'if we come and live in Oradour we'll become part of that history, it's interesting'."

Local schoolkids benefit from workshops with artists and writers. "It isn't always sad and dramatic," Sadry points out.

Meanwhile Babeth Robert is multiplying projects with other European countries where WWII massacres took place, such as Lidice in the Czech Republic, Otranto in Italy and several in Greece.

The massacres may seem far away, but they still resonate, says Sadry, recalling Robert Hebras's reaction when  mass graves of civilians were discovered in Bucha, Ukraine, in March 2022.

He says the Oradour survivor told him: "W hat we're seeing on TV is exactly what we saw in the village back then. It took me back 80 years."  

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