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The tiny French village of Oradour-sur-Glane was once like any other village in France. It was a half-hour west of the larger city of Limoges, famous for its porcelain. In Oradour, there was a train station and a post office. There were barbershops, shoe stores, dentists, hair stylists, and a church. There was a boys' school and a girls' school. In many ways it reminded us of Crest, the small town where we have been living for the past several months.
At noon on June 10, 1944, the people of Oradour -- then under German occupation because of WWII -- were going about their daily lives and business. At 2:00 in the afternoon, a convoy of German soldiers suddenly came barreling through the town, unannounced. They drove down Main Street, and then -- as far as the villagers were concerned -- they left.
What the Germans actually did, however, was completely encircle the village with their troops. The 200 Nazi soldiers who surrounded the village made their circle smaller and smaller, rousing and grabbing any inhabitants they found along the way. Ultimately, more than six hundred villagers were assembled in the center of town in the tiny village square.
The Nazis separated the men from the women and children. The men were further split into a half-dozen different groups. They were led at gunpoint to various points around town, where they were told the Nazis were looking for hidden weapons. The villagers, who knew there were no weapons and had nothing to hide, complied. They felt that this was just another German show of force, and they were not afraid.
At 4:00 PM a signal was given, and the Nazis simultaneously and suddenly opened fire on the men, now separated in different garages and fields around Oradour. Each of the sites was then set afire and burned to the ground. 197 men were killed. Only five escaped.
The women and children had been taken at gunpoint to the church, which the Nazis filled with boxes of noxious ammunition. The soldiers opened fire and threw live hand grenades into the church. The building was then set on fire. Anyone trying to escape was shot. 240 women and 205 children perished. Only one woman escaped, by jumping out of one of the vitrine windows at the altar.
After systematically looting Oradour for anything of value, the Nazi soldiers then set fire to the entire village. 328 buildings were burned to the ground. By 7:00 PM -- just ahead of the 7:15 train that was due to arrive -- Oradour had been destroyed. The ttrain passengers -- workers returning at the end of the day -- were stopped outside of town and made to wait for two hours. The Nazis came back into town and removed and obliterated all bodies. The remains were thrown into a mass grave so that they could never be identified or mourned. The full realization of what had happened was not known until the next day.
Even today, no one really knows why this happened. Perhaps Hitler wanted to make a show of force against the French Résistance that was rampant in the region. Perhaps he was simply angry about the Allied invasion of Normandy -- D-Day -- that had occurred just days before. But Oradour was not a stronghold of Résistance activity. Neither was it a hiding place for any large number of Jews. It was just a normal French village.
After the end of the war, Oradour was singled out as one of the most brutal examples of Nazi atrocity. But unlike Oklahoma City or the New York Twin Towers, the remains of Oradour were not torn down or replaced by a park. Instead, the French decided to leave the town exactly as it was on June 10, 1944. The burned-out remains of the buildings are just as they were almost 60 years ago. What's left of the shops, businesses, and schools still line what's left of Main Street. In the church, there are still bullet holes in the walls. And the charred remains of a baby carriage still sit on the floor near the altar. Because only ten percent of the remains could ever be identified, the rest were interred together beneath a memorial stone.
Oradour-sur-Glane is not anywhere near any of the other sites that we are currently visiting here in Dordogne. It is six hours away from Crest and two hours away from our accommodations at Beynac. The boys did not particularly enjoy being here, although we fully explained what they were going to see before we got here. At the museum that preceded our walk through the town --which included rare home movies of the people who once lived there -- Cameron said, "My eyes are all dried out."
But at the entrance and exit to the martyred village, there is a plain sign with a single English word: "Remember."
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