Thursday, 31 January 2013
I was feeling knackered as my plane came into land. I had been working all night then driven straight from my workplace down to East Midlands Airport and caught a flight to Limoges, France. I hadn't slept in over 30 hours.
I was in Northern France to help one of my oldest and greatest friends who had bought a derelict French farmhouse and I was going to spend a couple of days helping him with the renovation.
He met me at the airport and as I slung my bag in the car he told me that there was something nearby that he wanted to show me before we drove to the farmhouse and as we were in the region this was the best chance to see it.
So we drove to the ghost town of Oradour-sur-Glane.
Let me tell you what happened there on Saturday the 10th of June 1944.
A group of German soldiers of the 2nd SS Panzer Division Das Reich surrounded the village and informed the Mayor, Jean Desourteaux that there was to be an identity check and rounded up everyone in the village.
They then told the assembled people that the troops needed to search the village for weapons and explosives and marched the women and children into the church and the men into a nearby barn.
After the inhabitants had been secured the Germans threw a gas bomb into the church. This failed to ignite so they opened up with their machine guns and hand grenades on the women and children. Then they piled wood on the bodies, many of them still alive, poured on petrol and set fire to them.
Only one person made it out alive, a woman who saw her child machine gunned in front of her but managed to escape by climbing a step ladder and jumping through a high window, despite being shot five times. She described seeing a woman with a baby try to follow her through the window but they were caught and thrown into the flames.
The soldiers then shot all the men of the village in their legs and while they lay wounded, poured petrol on them and burnt them alive. They then looted the village and came across a number of villagers hiding in their houses. One old man, an invalid and bed ridden was burnt alive in his bed and a baby found in it's cot was baked alive in the bakery oven.
The soldiers then set fire to the rest of the village and left. Six hundred and forty two people died that day.
To this date there has not been an official reason given for this massacre, there was talk of a German general being kidnapped and held in a village in the area but it was not in Oradour and there was no Resistance activity in the village. They say the soldiers had just returned from the horrors of fighting on the Russian Front and had been brutalised by their experiences.
Today the ruins of the Oradour-sur-Glane still stand and the French left the village as it was left by the soldiers as a memorial to the dead. The rusting hulks of burned out cars and farm trucks are on the cobbled street. Through holes in the collapsed walls of houses I could see rusting frying pans in the remains of kitchens and a decaying sewing machine next to a hearth in what used to be a living room.
There is a nearby memorial and a museum where the personal effects of the dead are on display. Piles of spectacles, wallets and handbags. Sepia photographs of smiling families.
I am not a spiritual person, I don't believe in gods or ghosts but that empty village did not feel empty, the air felt somehow heavy despite the shining sun and singing birds. Perhaps it was my lack of sleep and the unsettling feeling of being at the scene of a Nazi atrocity, but to me the whole place felt haunted.
I heard on the news yesterday that Germany is re-opening an investigation into the massacre at Oradour-sur-Glane. A little late in the day as many of the soldiers involved are long dead.
Last Sunday was Holocaust Memorial Day in which we remember the millions killed in the concentration camps and tell ourselves that atrocities must never happen again.
But atrocities happen every day. In the Middle East and Afghanistan hundreds are killed by extremists in bomb attacks so frequently that instead of shock and horror when we hear about it on the news it has become almost a background noise.
When the Soviet Union collapsed in the 90's the Serbians and Bosnians celebrated their new found freedom from Communism by reverting back to their old tribal conflicts and slaughtering the very people that they had lived alongside for years.
In the African Congo the civil wars go on and on and rape and mutilation are seen as acceptable forms of warfare. In fact it is considered a boys rite of passage into manhood to rape a woman.
In Pakistan a grown man shoots a fourteen year old girl in the head, just because she wants to go to school.
We talk about history allowing us to learn from our past mistakes but what we seem to be learning the wrong things
Anyway, have a nice weekend.