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.

1 comment:

Janet said...

I was fortunate to grew up in New York, an environment that was physically untouched by WWII, so I'm always shocked to see its scars scattered across the European continent. I have never been to The Village of the Martyrs but your very well-written piece gave me the sense that I have been there. Thank you.