Monday, August 1, 2011

The Village of the Martyrs

The atrocities the Nazis committed are legendary, but most of the attention falls on the Holocaust, and rightly so.

One of the atrocities committed by the SS in World War II is almost never spoken of in the United States, but it is something that is still taught in French schools, and it is but one example of many where the Third Reich took out its anger on civilians.

In 1944, near the town of Limoges in Limousin, French Resistance fighters killed an SS officer and captured another. As the D-Day landings in Normandy had just taken place, it was a time of hope for the French and panic for the Germans.

Over the following days, the Germans planned their retaliation for the killing of their officer. That retaliation was played out June 10 in the town of Oradour-sur-Glane.

SS soldiers - including some from Alsace, which had been disputed by France and Germany for nearly a century - rounded up almost 700 civilians and murdered them.

The men were shot at various points in the small town, and the women and children were herded into the church where they were machine-gunned and then burned.

The entire town was razed, with every building looted and burned.

When General Charles de Gaulle saw the city and heard of the atrocity committed there, he ordered the city be left as a reminder of what happened. To this day, visitors can walk the dead streets, passing what used to be houses and businesses, many with signs telling the barest details of the former inhabitants.
The streets today have been cleared of rubble, much of that having been done when the dead were removed a few days after the attack.

One of the few survivors wrote in his memoirs that when the Germans rounded them up, everyone thought it was an identity paper check. They were herded to different locations before a grenade going off signaled the Germans to simultaneously open fire.

The whole town is a moving experience. It reminded me somewhat of Pompeii, but even though Pompeii was ruined and its inhabitants died in their masses, there is one key difference - Oradour-sur-Glane was wiped out by people, not a devastating volcanic eruption.

Walking into the church where hundreds lost their lives, it was hard to imagine what kind of 'soldier' could set up a machine gun and mow down women and children.
Bullet holes still scar the inside of the walls, and at one spot there is a memorial to those whom the village had lost in the First World War. In place by World War II, it too is perforated by machine gun bullets as the same enemy visited its hatred on the town.The town's cemetery has a memorial to those killed, with gravestones throughout the cemetery bearing images of "our dear martyrs." At the memorial, two coffers hold the last remnants of some of those who were never identified - charred pieces of bone.

Even though I know the history of many of the atrocities committed in World War II, seeing such a stark reminder of what those numbers in history books actually mean was a moving experience.

Tuesday, April 12, 2011

Fort Sumter – 150 years later

Charleston, South Carolina, might be home to more Revolutionary War sites than Civil War sites, but 150 years ago, the first shots of the Civil War were fired in the harbor, at a place called Fort Sumter.

The fort was one of the must-see stops on my trip to Charleston in December. As a kid, I had always been interested in the Civil War, and while some of my friends could tell you how many home runs Babe Ruth hit in his career, I could tell you a trained soldier was expected to fire three shots per minute out of a muzzleloading musket, and other minutiae and historical trivia.

Riding a ferry to the fort takes the better part of 30 minutes, and my first sight of it was just a low dark spot on the horizon, splitting sea and sky on a nice day.

The walls used to be much taller, mounting guns that protected the harbor from seaborne attack.

But it wouldn’t be seaborne attack on April 12, 1861, that would eventually lead to the fort’s downfall.

Confederate gunners opened fire from other nearby fortifications after a signal shot that exploded over Fort Sumter. When I stood in the fort’s courtyard, surrounded by ruined walls and the evidence of the shelling and fire that ensued, I tried to imagine what the fort must have been like back then.

Once the fort had been shelled for 34 hours, a fire broke out, and Maj. Robert Anderson, the fort’s commander, surrendered his garrison rather than let it be slaughtered.

Today, visitors can walk around the fort, climb atop the remains and visit the museum inside, which contains numerous artifacts from the era as well as putting the site into the greater context of the conflict.

Since the fort is a national park, it is well-kept, and guides give free talks and answer questions.

Old forts aren’t at the top of everyone’s travel list, and Charleston has much to offer outside of historical sites (though it has plenty of those). However, Fort Sumter was the first battle in a long war that ended up killing more Americans than any other war in history. If you're at all interested in American history, the site is a must-see.

For up-to-date directions on how to get to the fort, click the link at the top of the article, which will take you to the official site.

Monday, April 4, 2011

Walking with the Dead

Below the streets, I walked alone through darkened chambers lined with the bones of the dead. Hollow eye sockets gazed out at me as I passed by skulls that were artfully arranged.

I was deep in the Paris catacombs, having passed the iconic sign letting me know I was entering the realm of the dead.

The experience was at once spooky, fascinating and fun. I was surrounded by thousands of dead Parisians. We’d all walked the same part of the world, but what a different world it must have looked to them.

I looked at a couple of skulls, wondering who they might have belonged to. There’s no way to tell – the catacombs contain the remains of noble and pauper alike, and no one’s bones are marked.

What was the Louvre to these people? To me, it’s the world’s best art museum. To them, it might have been during its time as a royal palace. Were they with the revolutionaries who burned a wing of it? Or were they older? It’s possible they saw the Louvre further back, as a fortress on the Seine to prevent waterborne attack.

They probably walked on the same lawns of the Champs de Mars where I spent so much time, but they were never there to see the Eiffel Tower – built long after they died.

The catacombs themselves were made when workers needed stone to build some of Paris’ magnificent buildings. Not the Haussmann buildings you see today, but the older buildings.

In the late 1700s, the French had a problem: cemeteries in Paris were full to bursting – literally. Occasionally, an overloaded cemetery would, say, burst through a wall, filling a cellar next door with decaying bodies.

It was a public health nightmare.

So the French decided to reinter the remains in the existing catacombs. The process took several decades, and it has left us with one of the world’s macabre tourist attractions.

When I lived in Paris in 2009, the catacombs were closed due to vandalism. They’ve since reopened, but with added security measures.

When I walked out of the catacombs, my camera bag was searched to make sure I hadn’t stolen any bones.

To think someone would steal the bones doesn’t exactly surprise me, but it is disappointing. Walking among the dead, it’s clear that the bones were placed in their current location with some degree of reverence, and priests were on-hand during the relocation as well.

Many of France’s elites may be buried in the Pere Lachaise cemetery, but so many others rest in the catacombs. Rumors of ghosts stalking the corridors are popular, and it’s easy to see why.

To reach the catacombs, take the Metro to the Denfert-Rochereau stop and exit to the street level, where you will see the entrance.