Oradour-Sur-Glane & Perigueux
3 Sep 2012
|We left Chenonceau, and I had plugged in the details to get to a stop we were making on the way to Perigueux. We were going to visit a memorial site called Oradour-sur-Glane. The night before I took a look at some maps, and did some rough planning of our route. I figured we'd take the tollway\motorway west, almost in line with Tour, and then south to Poitiers.
Unfortunately for us, the Tomtom GPS likes to take you the fastest possible route. Normally, we wouldn't have cared less. However, today the GPS had us cutting through single lane roads through dense farmland. We hadn't seen a car for the first 40 minutes, which would normally make the drive relaxing. However, we had some problems. The car had started to cough and splutter, loosing power and not accelerating when Ali put her foot down. The first couple of times we weren't so concerned, but when it started happening repeatedly, we got a bit concerned that the car may break down, and we'd be stuck in corn fields.
We stopped in a tiny country town somewhere, to ensure that the GPS had us heading to the right destination. I think the town was called Valencay, although on google earth, that appears significantly bigger than the town we stopped in. According to the GPS, we were heading the right way, and we were heading to the right destination. Scary.
When we got started again, the car kept coughing and spluttering. Ali had asked when I filled the car up, had I put diesel in. I knew that I had so I dismissed that concern. But she raised a point that was valid, was it a big name fuel company, or was it a tin pot little one that might have dodgy fuel. Not being an expert on which were the big companies and not (I knew two of the big companies, but not all of them). As we drove and the car shuddered, I suggested maybe we should turn the "eco" mode off. The eco mode was designed to slow down the consumption of fuel, and it also shut the engine off temporarily when it was stopped. As soon as we hit the eco button, the shuddering stopped. The car felt like it had its power back, and would accelerate when needed. Crisis averted!
Without going much further than another 45mins, we found ourselves on a proper motorway, so we stopped and swapped driving at a roadhouse.
The drive was fairly uneventful from that moment on. What we did wonder however, is what constituted a valley. We had been staying in the Loire Valley for almost a week, and we did not really see any discernible hills or mountains on the way out of the valley. It felt like we were basically on flat road the whole way. Is the Loire Valley a ruse?
We arrived at Oradour-sur-glane, and we parked the car outside the new township, not far from the entrance to the memorial. There was a large statue of what looked like a pregnant woman being burned in the main street near the car park.
Before I go much further, I should stop to say what Oradour-sur-glane is. Obviously, it's a French township, but it's now more than that. Oradour-sur-glane is quite possibly, one of the darkest reminders outside of the concentration camps, of the brutality of the Nazi army. The hardest bit to comprehend about this dark story, is that it appears to be the wrong place, the wrong town. The name Oradour-Sur-Glane is partially derived from latin. The word Oradour is symbolic of a chapel, or a place would worship the dead. "Sur-glane" is French, and it means "on the Glane (river)".
On the 10th June 1944, a unit of the 2nd SS Panzer Division was ordered to move to try halt the allies movement across France, after the d-day landings in Normandy. The unit was the 4th SS Panzer Grenadier Regiment which was commanded by Adolf Diekmann. On the morning of the 10th, Diekmann was informed by 2 members of the French secret police the Milice, that a German officer was captured by the French resistance in the town of Oradour-Sur-Vayres.
Later that day, after Diekmann had discussed the manner with a fellow officer Stadtler (who was in training for promotion), and had gone to rescue the lost officer. Diekmann had taken his battalion to another nearby town, Oradour-sur-glane, perhaps in confusion choosing the wrong town. He had the town surrounded and locked down, so no one could come in or out. All of the townsfolk were rounded up and brought to the town square.
It is said, following the trials after the war, that Diekmann had been ordered by Stadtler to get 30 names from the Mayor, who would be taken as prisoner until the exchange for their missing officer could be made. As regimental commander, Stadtler had the authority, but instead of following these orders, Diekmann decided to take his own course of action.
Once the townsfolk were gather in the square, all the women and children were taken to the nearby church and locked inside. The men of the town were broken up into several groups, and lead to various sections of the town. Unbeknownst to any of the townsfolk, they were about to be taken and made victims in a terrible massacre.
The men were lead to barns, or parts of the town, where a nest of machine gunners waited for them. When the men were in these barns, the German soldiers opened fire, but instead of executing them, the soldiers fired upon their legs. When the men had collapsed on the ground, unable to move, the Germans then grouped them together, and covered them with fuel, and set them on fire. One hundred and ninety men were killed that day. Six men were able escape in the chaos, one of which was later found by the Germans along the roadside near the cemetery. He was shot dead.
Of the women and children in the church, an incendiary device was thrown into the church. As it caught fire, people tried to escape out the doors. The SS soldiers were waiting for them outside with machine guns. One woman managed to jump out a window above the altar of the church and escaped. All the other women and children in the church perished. In all, 247 women and 205 children were massacred. Afterwards, Diekmann had the town razed.
It was lucky that there were some survivors of this act of terror. I use that word very specifically, because even though it has become a catch cry for anything evil in today's society, there is no other way I could assume the townsfolk felt, but terrified. The survivors were able to detail to investigations post the war, exactly what happened on that day. They also were able to detail the shock at which they felt when the Germans had arrived. Whilst they always lived with the fear that they may show up, the town itself had no military purpose, and was not frequented by the French resistance. Due to the gravity of the incidents in the town, Charles de Gaulle had the township left exactly as it was. It was never to be rebuilt post the war, but to serve as a permanent reminder of the atrocities the French people had to live through.
Alison and I went into the visitor centre, and through the tunnel which goes under the main street of the new town, and arrives near the edge of the old town. It's no exaggeration to say that the town was a series of demolished, war torn buildings. Each of the buildings had a plaque to say what its previous existence was. Each building would say the name of the owner of the business or occupant, and the type of business inside.
As we walked slowly through the first street, looking at the piles of rubble, and the odd piece of metal that was melted but still distinguishable, be it a table setting, an oven or a sewing machine.
As we walked past the first few buildings, we came to a street corner. At the corner, on one of the buildings was a sign. The sign itself was only in French, but the literal translation was as follows:
"here place of torment
a group of six men were killed and burned by the Nazis
Along some of the streets, you would see a car, which was burnt, leaving only the outer shell of the car. I looked at it, very closely, to see if it had any bullet holes in it, but I could not find any. My best guess is that the driver (where it was positioned indicated that it was being driven at the time it was left) was forced out of the car at gun point, and probably taken to the town square, or perhaps shot on site.
The atmosphere of a place like this is very unusual. People walk around in amazement, and the desolation and ruin in front of them. Some of them are astonished, some of them in despair. Almost everyone had a camera or video camera with them, but if they were like me, it was hard to take pictures at all. It felt wrong to take pictures, but I felt obliged to take them. Maybe I have an inflated ego, but it felt like the memorial was here, to ensure that people share the experience with others, to ensure that the memory of what happened lives on.
We continued walking along the streets for about an hour, before we arrived at the church. Just standing outside this building put a lump in my throat and made my chest feel heavy. On the outside was a sign. It said:
by hundreds of women and children
were massacred by the Nazis
you who pass contemplate
do you believe that a prayer
for victims and their families
the town in ruins only remain standing
outside the crucifix
in Our Lady of Lourdes and Bernadette
come to me you who suffer christ said
do what he tells you told the virgin
they rest in peace
because they are living in eternity
I have tried to find a translation for the last paragraph, but requiescat does not appear in any dictionary I have. It appears to be similiar to the french word for requiem.
We headed into the church, and the atmosphere inside was very heavy. There was no roof on the church likely because it was blown up by the incendiary bombs. Near where the roof was meant to be, you could still see some black stains from the fire. The rest of the church looked as if it had been cleaned a little, perhaps because the church itself was a monument enough, without needing to show the graphic detail of the fire itself.
In one small section of the church, was a memorial to those who fought and died in world war one. On the opposite was a memorial for those who had died in the slaughter.
At the end of the church, where the altar should be, it now standing only partially complete and a bit damage by smoke, was quite possibly the most upsetting part of the entire town. Firstly, my eyes were drawn to the altar, and the broken windows behind it. I think it this was where the woman escaped. Then, my eyes turned to the altar, and I walked a bit closer to it, to try see how much of it had made it through the ordeal. Then, my eyes were drawn to something on the floor. It lie there, a twisted piece of metal, limp and broken. It had 4 small wheels, but at first it did not register with me what it was. Maybe it was because I was still in shock, maybe because I found the church overwhelming. But my mind came back to why I was in the church, and WHAT happened inside the church, and it was like I came back to reality to what I was looking at. The twisted metal was a baby stroller. I stood there and looked at it silently for a moment, realising that women and children meant EVERY child, no matter how young.
It was a sorrowful feeling, knowing that the child in that stroller - one can only assume there was a baby inside, would have been burnt to death or died from smoke inhalation. It's hard to accept the senseless brutality, that a soldier could somehow think it was acceptable for a child that young to be murdered. How? Why? What threat could it possibly have made to a soldier?
I stood there looking and contemplating those very questions, lost for a moment. It wasn't until a woman in probably her 40s came up and stood beside me. I can see her looking around, already moved by the church. I saw her eyes looking up, and then at the altar. Then she stared at the ground, and saw the baby stroller. It seemed to shock her as well, as I watched her stare at it momentarily in disbelief. Then she broke down, quietly.
The immense sadness made it hard to stay in the church. Alison and I both had to leave, so we did. The pit of my stomach hurt, and I felt sick. We walked back outside, and then around the corner of the church, as I wanted to see how much further the town went. We looked and saw the windows, which must have been near the altar. Below them was a sign, which was one of the very few you could say were "happy". The sign simply said:
by this window
has escaped Madame Rouffanche
only escapee of the church
By this stage, we'd pretty much seen enough. We started walking up the main street, and around a crescent, which took us to the town square. We stopped and contemplated what had gone on here. We also passed a few more signs pointing to torture and murder of men, as well as another which said 2 burnt bodies had been found on that spot.
We walked slowly out of the memorial from that point, not stopping for anything. We walked our way back to the car, and stopped to pay our respects at the memorial statue we had seen on the way in, and then got in the car.
Ali took the wheel, as I think it was helping her not focus deeply on what we'd seen. We were very quiet for the next half hour, talking only from necessity, and to discuss one or two things we'd felt about the visit.
Luckily for us, the drive to Perigueux was a pretty one. We were in some hills, and although the roads weren't that quiet (French drivers really like to sit on your tail as you drive), the rolling hills and the green trees around us helped take our minds from the sadness of Oradour.
Half way to Perigueux, we swapped back over the driving, and I took us in to the town. It was quite a contrast to the busy country roads. It was like a mini version of Paris. Twisting streets, cars going from the right hand (outer lane) to the left hand lane in a matter of metres. I got to a roundabout in the middle of the town, and it was intimidating to cross. I waited for what seemed like a few minutes for a break in traffic. I was in the left hand lane, and noticed that those in the right hand lane, weren't waiting. They simply pulled out into the traffic, and forced those coming from the other direction to stop, whilst they got their way across the intersection. I decided to be brave and try the same thing.
It didn't sit well, and I was worried that I'd be paying 1400 euro for accident excess, but the other cars did stop and let me through. From there to the hotel, the traffic was pretty easy to deal with, just very slow. We were able to park opposite the hotel, in some public parking. The room in the hotel was quite small, but it did overlook the river, and at the huge romanesque church opposite us.
We were pretty warm in the room, as there was no air conditioning, so we went downstairs to grab a drink. I got some directions to the local supermarket, and walked around there to grab a bottle of soft drink and some water. Afterwards we had dinner in the restaurant linked to the hotel, although it did seem like they were different businesses. The food was very nice, although the water was just a tiny bit stinky. It smelt like the local sewerage system went very close to the restaurant terrace. We did get to watch some fish swimming just below us though, so the water mustn't have been too bad.
It'd had been a long day by the time we'd finished dinner. We'd also had a huge contrast in our day, from the romance of the prettiest chateau in the Loire, to one of the seediest stories of the second world war.
Tomorrow was a big day of driving, but it would be a good chance for us to put some distance on the sadness of this afternoon.