Friday, October 9, 2009

France on $70 a Day – A Unique World War II Memorial

This was written in the Dordogne, but, because Internet cafes were difficult to find, it was posted from California.

In the small French village of Oradour, a town with three schools, bakeries, a blacksmith shop, and tailors, two hundred SS troops marched into the main street on 10 June 1944. They had already secured the only exits to the village so the townspeople, lacking any escape, were forced to follow the SS commands as the troops combed through the houses and shops.

The men of the town, 198 of them, were herded into barns while the women and children were forced into the local church. Told that the village was going to be searched for weapons, the men, who knew there were no weapons, were confident of a quick release. The children were encouraged to sing on their way to the church.

When the people were securely barricaded, the men were shot with machine guns and later, even though some were still clinging to life, burned. A bomb was thrown into the church to asphyxiate the 444 women and children, but it proved ineffective. The SS went in, shot their victims to subdue them, and then threw logs atop their prone, but still-conscious, bodies and lit a fire. Many of the SS watched the carnage from the windows of the church.

Although five men and one woman managed, despite injuries, to escape, the SS killed every one of the other 642 inhabitants. When they had finished murdering, the troops moved on to loot the houses and then burn down the entire village.

To this day, no one is sure what motivated the Nazis. Oradour was not part of the French Resistance. It was, up until 10 June 1944, one of the sleepiest and most peaceful villages in France.

David and I watched this historical horror story unfold via slides and narration, in the auditorium of the Centre de la Memoire, a memorial dedicated to the innocent victims of Oradour. We sat there, long after the credits had rolled by, wondering how it was possible for the SS to have treated these innocent people so cruelly. How could they have watched children burn to death? Two children's charred bodies had been found holding on to each other. What sort of monster could allow that to happen?

Lost in our thoughts, we slowly walked from the auditorium. Surely an atrocity of this type could never happen again. These SS were not human beings, but savages. Human beings could not have demolished an entire town and tortured the townspeople before killing them. Human beings would not stand outside church windows and listen to the screams and pleas of injured people slowly being burned to death. No, these Nazis were a breed apart, monsters who existed only during that devastating war.

David and I entered the next room which was dimly lit. As our eyes adjusted to the low light, we saw that parts of the glass floor were illuminated with what, at first glance, looked like headstones, but were, in fact, quotes from famous people about the atrocities of war.

As we studied them, I had the uneasy feeling that someone was behind me. Finally turning around, I saw that the entire back wall of this room was a mirror. And, there, David and I had our answer in the mirror's reflection. The Nazis were not monsters, not a breed apart, after all. They were, given the right conditions of time and place, just like you and me.



The village has been left just as it was in June, 1944, as a memorial to the people who died in the senseless war, while a second “new” Oradour has been built nearby.

The town is roughly twelve miles northwest of Limoges. Parking is free. You can only enter the Oradour ruins, at no cost, via the Memorial's gates, but if you decide to tour the Memorial first to learn of the events leading up to the massacre, the cost is 7.60 euros.

See this site for further information:

When we were there in September, there was another touring exhibition on display. We paid another 2 euros to view the Memorial to 9/11 where, among many artifacts, the misshapen cornerstone of the World Trade Centers, parts of the planes, and portions of the fence (that became a memorial at the site), were displayed.

I fought back emotions as I wandered through the room, but a painting by Italian artist Piero Capobianco brought tears. The Statue of Liberty, impaled on the cross created by the two World Trade Centers, reminded me, yet again, that atrocities are not limited to the distant past. Sadly, Oradour and New York City have a lot in common.

Painting by Piero Capobianco

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