While I’ve been busy networking and going to the TBEX conference, my awesome wife Laura has gone ahead to southern France, where she’s explored an intriguing, dark destination. All words and photos are hers.
Oradour-sur-Glane was a small French village of no importance whatsoever which, for reasons which are still debated, was targeted by SS soldiers. They marched into town, bringing whoever they found on outlying farms with them, and gathered the townspeople together in the town’s central area; they then took the men, in six groups, to various garages and barns in the town, while the women and children were directed inside the church. The men were then gunned down and the church was set on fire. All told, 642 people died. After the war, then-president Charles de Gaulle decreed that the village was to be left as it was as a permanent memorial to the victims of the massacre.
Before I begin, there are two important points I have to mention:
1) Do not do this trip on a Sunday unless you have your own transportation. The museum and village are open, but no buses run on Sundays and the village cannot be reached by train, meaning you can either walk 20 km each way or you can take a taxi… which charge higher rates because it’s a Sunday. If, however, you do have your own transportation, I think there are likely to be fewer tourists in the village on a Sunday, so it’s probably the best time for you to visit.
2) There are signs outside the museum and again at the village entrance forbidding photography. Many people in the village totally ignored this rule. Personally, I felt the purpose of the rule was most likely because it’s hard to seriously contemplate such a tragic event when you’re surrounded by clicking DSLRs and selfie sticks, so I only took photos when no one else was around. There are no staff members in the village to enforce the ban, so it’s really up to you to decide how much of an asshole you want to be in that regard.
The tragic story of the village is told in great detail in the museum, which you can choose to walk through, or not, on your way to the village. If you do choose to visit, it’s 7.80€, plus 2€ for the temporary exhibition. I paid, mostly because I wanted to support the conservation of the memorial. The museum begins with the beginning of the war, the conquest of France, the different regions of France and the resistance, and pretty much all the background you need to understand how the massacre came to be.
It also lists Nazi killings in the region around the time of the massacre (there were many smaller incidents) and a little bit about the history of the village, photos of what it was like before the war, and information on its role in the war (practically none). I found the school photos to be particularly unsettling – although it was a small village with a population of less than 1700 including people living in the hamlets around, it had four small schools, and sadly, they were especially full on the day of the massacre as it was an important day when there was to be a medical examination.
There is also a detailed breakdown of the victims. Most, of course, were natives of the village, but as it was also a new home for a lot of refugees from Spain and from Alsace-Lorraine after its annexation by Nazi Germany, there were also a lot of victims from outside the region. These included some people from Paris lunching at a café in town who chose the wrong day for a lovely trip to southern France, and even one Tunisian victim.
After you get the background story, you enter the village itself, which is wisely blocked off on all sides with the only public entrance through the museum. The village has been left as a memorial exactly as it was the day it was destroyed… more or less. Of course some walls have crumbled over time, and although the lawns and bushes are kept trimmed, vegetation does tend to do its thing over time.
The Nazis burned everything after the massacre, so most of what was in the houses was then destroyed – even photos taken just afterward show the buildings without roofs. Still, the overall plan of the village is mostly intact, and a few rusty iron items inside each building help provide some background. The baker’s pans, the woodsman’s saws, a car here or there in what used to be a garage, are all left (supposedly) exactly where they were when their owners went out to have their papers checked, which was the pretext given by the Nazis for the massacre.
Also, for whatever reason, there seems to be a sewing machine in almost every building. Sewing machines, I guess, stand the test of time. One would think there would be more than just a few old iron things left around if the place was truly left untouched after the massacre, but looting (by the Nazis and, I suspect, later on by people who lived nearby), burning (by the Nazis), time (seventy years), possibly some cleanup by those in charge of the site, vegetation and perhaps further looting by a few despicable souvenir hunters have all taken their toll. Also, the sewing machines in particular were pretty clearly posed.
Also left intact are the tram lines, still in place, and the electricity lines, not quite doing as well as the tram lines.
Most of the cars sit together, quietly rusting. It seems many of the wealthier residents of Limoges chose to store their cars in this little village to hide them from the Nazi occupying forces. The car which now sits on the Fairgrounds supposedly belonged to Dr. Jacques Desourteaux, who had been seeing a patient and arrived back in town just in time to be herded into a garage with all the rest.
I really appreciated the signs on each building saying what it was and who owned it – for example, “Fabric merchant, Mr. Dupic”. That really helped to give a sense of what you’re looking at. Again, the schools were hard to see.
There are also signs indicating the location of all six massacres of men as well as places where other bodies were found afterward. One of my more chilling moments was when I was walking around a patch of grass and seeing a sign saying people had been killed right there, basically where I was walking.
At the far end of the village is the church where the women and children were killed. The remains of a baby’s pram lie in front of the altar. (This, again, seems posed, though of course many babies did die in the fire.)
One of the other truly sad aspects of this story is that since all bodies were burned, most could not be identified by the forensic standards of 1944. We know the names of the victims, but only 52 could be positively identified at the time.
I am indebted to a couple of websites for helping confirm what I read in the museum as well as a few other facts. If you want to read more about this event, I’d recommend The Oradour-sur-Glane Massacre, which includes a good map of the ruins, and a site by a guy named Michael Williams – both are pretty comprehensive and probably the best free sources of English information about this event.
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Name: Centre de la Mémoire Oradour-sur-Glane, Village Martyr Oradour-sur-Glane
Address: L’auze, BP 12, 87520, Oradour-sur-Glane (GPS: 45.929537, 1.039948)
Directions: Take bus 12 from the Ciel bus station right next to the Limoges Bénédictins train station. As of April, 2015, it makes three trips per day in each direction, leaving the train station and going toward Oradour at 07:55, 12:35 and 18:23 and leaving Oradour going toward Limoges at 06:50, 11:55 and 17:35. See http://www.moohv87.fr/fileadmin/user_upload/fiches_horaires/12_0713.pdf for a full schedule (subject to change).
Hours: From February 1st – December 15th, 9 AM – 5, 6 or 7 PM depending on the season (see website (http://www.oradour.org/en/content/date-et-horaires-douverture) for up-to-date information)
Admission: Village free, museum 7.80€ (individuals), 22€ (families), 5.20€ (kids 10-18, students, veterans, etc.), free (unemployed, journalists, kids under 10, etc.)
Phone: +33(0)5 55 430 430
Website: http://www.oradour.org/en (French)
Ratings out of 5 globes (How do I rate destinations?)
Ease to arrive:
(only one globe if traveling on a Sunday)
(only French in the village, many but not all the museum explanations also in English and German)
Worth the visit:
Also published on Medium.