Village where time has stood still since Nazi atrocities

I hesitated to go to the village of Oradour-sur-Glane because its history is almost too much to contemplate.

During World War II, in just a few hours, a meticulously planned and orchestrated Nazi bloodbath turned this once bustling market town into a tragic ruin haunted by ghosts.

On June 10, 1944, the main street was packed with people enrolling their children in school, collecting tobacco rations, shopping, and meeting friends in cafes and bars. It was a normal and peaceful day in the village of Haute-Vienne, in the Aquitaine region. So when, in the afternoon, 200 occupying Nazi soldiers of the 4th SS Panzer Division surrounded the town and gathered everyone in the town square, the people resigned themselves to the boredom of have their identity papers checked. Even six passing cyclists had been arrested. Boring, but it was war. Only 20 people managed to escape the roundup and leave town.

Everyone was rounded up, then the 190 men were taken to a series of barns, and the 247 women and 205 children taken to church. But there was no intention to verify anyone’s identity.

In the barns, the machine guns were already installed. When the men arrived, the Nazis shot at their legs so they could not escape, then piled kindling and firewood on the injured men and burned them alive. Miraculously, five survived to witness the horror.

The soldiers then looted the town, and an hour later set off an incendiary device just outside the church. Amid the noise, smoke and rubble, terrified women and children fled through doors and windows, only to be mowed down by machine guns. Only one woman survived.

After massacring everyone, the soldiers then set the whole town ablaze and stayed to fan the flames, to make sure everything was reduced to ashes. When they finally left, they left no building unscathed and many bodies were burned beyond recognition.

Horrified neighbors who discovered the massacre, in which 642 people died, vowed to maintain the ruins. They would never rebuild, the place would never be inhabited again. A new village was built a kilometer away, and today the old town remains in ruins as a reminder of what happened and as a monument to those who perished.

As I entered the village through a dark visitor center and a tunnel, I expected the atmosphere to be desperate, full of fear and agony. But as I walked through the deserted streets, I quickly realized that they weren’t exactly as they were just after the massacre. Evidently, the human remains were removed, the blood and soot washed away, the rubble was sifted through for family heirlooms, and dangerous areas were barricaded. In addition, outdated and burnt-out sewing machines were perched on the rubble inside many homes.

But 72 years of rain and wind covered everything with a film of earth. The grass has grown back and when we visited the sun was shining and the birds were singing. It’s very clean. There is no litter, no graffiti, no modern billboards, no traffic. Just the empty streets, the silent visitors and the ghosts of the dead. It was, in fact, oddly peaceful.

The silent streets of Oradour-sur-Glane Pic: MilaCroft / Shutterstock

Walking down the curving main street was like stepping back in time. The tramway tracks that linked Oradour-sur-Glane to Limoges are still there, as are the catenaries. Each building is labeled so you can tell which stores were; there is a garage, several fabric shops, seamstresses, tailors, bakers, grocery stores, a hardware store, several exchange offices, a tobacco shop, three schools, a post office, a large imposing hotel and many bars, restaurants and cafes.

Half close your eyes, use your imagination and you can imagine what life was like here during the war. There is no shortage of clues: cars from the 1930s, safely locked away in the ruins of their owner’s garages, a few floor tiles, scales, clothes pegs, bicycles and toys. You can almost imagine children playing, women cooking and making clothes, old men sitting in cafes.

But open your eyes wide again and the reality is stark: the carefully stored cars are nothing but rusting carcasses in the ruins of their shelters. They were burned in their garages. Everything made of wood is gone. There are no floors, no ceilings, no stairs, no roofs, no furniture. Books, photos, rugs, personal effects and linens were all destroyed in the horrific fire.

After the attack, a few spoons were recovered, a handful of wire-rimmed glasses, tin toy cars, melted glass objects, and a collection of blackened watches, but very little else. Just a few fragments of human bones that lie in glass covered coffins at the cemetery memorial. Fragments? To be confronted with the evidence of such extreme violence is shocking. Human bone fragments. The pieces are pell-mell, as they were found. The horror is breathtaking.

I wandered around the graves, many of which date from years before the massacre, reading names and dates, absorbing photos of those who died. The remains of those who were massacred also rest here, among their ancestors and neighbors. But nature is at work now. The dead were buried in peace, their remains being gently reabsorbed into the earth. The trees wave their leaves in the air, there is moss growing on the graves of the martyrs, a rabbit jumps in the hedge, a robin lands on the fence. Whatever we do, time passes and nature softens everything.

Oradour-sur-Glane is the site of an atrocity committed by man. But so is the Colosseum in Rome. It’s a scary thought. Oradour-sur-Glane was not the first human slaughter site and the tragedy is that it will not be the last either. For thousands of years, humans have been slaughtering each other. War is in itself an atrocity, and always breeds war crimes. Perhaps the rulers no longer feed people lions, but the suffering of civilians in Syria cannot be underestimated. Massacres of civilians still occur.

And the causes haven’t changed either.

The same intolerance, the same racism and the same hatred that animated much of the Nazi movement are still at the root of terrorism and wars throughout the world. And here in Western Europe, we see the same racism, hatred and lack of compassion towards unfortunate refugees, immigrants and foreigners. Others.

Leaving Oradour-sur-Glanes, I was haunted by the horrible question: could the massacre of innocent people happen again in Europe?

Comments are closed.