Oradour-sur-Glane, remembered forever

Oradour-sur-Glane, remembered forever

Oradour-sur-Glane, an unassuming name on France’s map that looks like any other of its neighbours. Yet this innocuous village bears deep scars that speak a thousand words of horror.  It is a story that needs to continually be told so that memories of Oradour’s families can be kept alive and honoured.

On our pilgrimage to connect with Europe’s World War history, we have travelled east to Treblinka in Poland, south to Bovec in Slovenia and Kalavrita in Greece and west to the harrowing region of Ypres, Verdun and the cemeteries of northern France. So when Myles said he wanted to visit Oradour-sur-Glane, it made perfect sense. I have heard others talk about their visits to this village, ravaged by war, although had no idea about its history or what we could expect there.  One thing was for sure, our experience would undoubtedly be moving if our other commemorative visitations were anything to go by. 

From memorial stones and razed killing fields to the profound and stark images created by the Birkenau railway just west of Krakow. What would our souls be called to learn at this little-known village in central France?  Check out our memorial visits on this interactive map.

 

 

Our visit to Oradour-sur-Glane

It seemed fitting that our visit to Oradour coincided with All Saint’s Day –  1 November. An important day on the Religious calendar when the dead are remembered and celebrated. What a symbolic day to be visiting a memorial site where a village fell to its knees, at the mercy of an army set on retribution and annihilation.  

As we drove into the village of Oradour-sur-Glane just north west of Limoges, it was clear from the map that there were a large number of cemeteries around the outskirts. Nothing necessarily unusual about that per se. They were sheltered from the road by trees to create some privacy for those buried there. Yet the grim reality soon stood out, as this village turned from a name on Google Maps to a village martyr.  Separated from the new village by a road and underground walkway, the ruins of an entire community lay bare as we drove past in mesmerised silence. Only one expletive uttered from our mouths, which was one of incredulity. Oh my god! 

Parked up opposite the ghost village, images went through my mind about what unfolded here and, more importantly why. A story that would not really become any clearer as we entered the commemorative arena, built by its modern day citizens. 

The first thing that struck us as we walked to the entrance was a 100ft statue. A monument of a woman being engulfed by flames. Engraved words triggered the beginning of a story that we knew would not have a happy ending. The events that unfolded on 10th June 1944, told simply by this statue, began our Oradour journey. 

‘Ici des hommes firent a leurs meres et a toutes les femmes, les plus grave injure. 

Ils n’epargnerent pas les enfants.’

‘Here men made to their mothers and all women the most serious insult  – they did not spare the children.’

As we walked across a flat tarmac pavement towards the Oradour village plaque, we were taken down some steps generating a surreal feeling of going into another world.  Underneath the ground a shop, a ticket desk and a museum greet you giving you options. Turn right into the museum where upon you pay 2€. Or go straight on towards the ruined village, which is free to enter. As we had been travelling all day we only had time to do one or another, so we chose to visit the village, where we knew we would feel the soul of the place.

Through a dark tunnel, adding to the atmosphere of Oradour’s tale, we were presented with a photographic project that the community is still working on. Their aim is to collect pictures of every single inhabitant of this tortured village and honour them on this Remembrance Wall. And so like our experiences at Auschwitz, seeing the faces of young and old made the whole experience more real and poignant. This was no longer a story, or movie to immerse ourselves in – this was real life. This was a moment in time of people’s lives, captured by these images.

I felt my heart skip a beat as I saw families; generations of mothers, brothers, fathers, aunts and grandparents, dads and sons all lined up on both sides of the tunnel. The eldest I saw was 81 and the youngest just 2 months old. This truly set the scene for what were about to witness. 

Returning to the surface, the cleverly created tunnel that protects the village, really transports you from the new to the old. Streets in tact with pavements and electric cables for the tram that travelled through the beating heart of this place. Yet then the stark reality dawned on us as we saw the fire torn buildings, with chard rubble strewn where the rugs would have lain. Rusted shutters at the windows that now just let the wind course its way through. Signs for the garage, the café, the boulangerie, the sabot maker and the coiffure.  And the faint yet distinct smell of smoke still hung in the air making the massacre all the more real. The walls vibrating with the sobs of scared children looking to their mothers for answers. Fear trodden into the dust that has settled between the buildings holding secrets of their death. 

So what events unfolded here to create such a travesty?

 

Oradour’s Massacre – the why’s

There is some ambiguity about the reason for this insane massacre on a peaceful village where children played on their bicycles and cafés bustled with war-time stories. Because only 6 people survived and the commander who order the attack died days after, the real justification for this attack has many shades of truth. The definitive reason may remain buried beneath the rubble with the muffled screams of those who perished.

One of the suggestions was that it was retribution for the capture of a German officer. Another that it was because of Resistance activity centred at the village. Or that it was simply German frustration over the D-Day landings that occurred just four days earlier.

The why’s are tough for us as we try to get our heads around such atrocities. Yet however you look at it, the reason for this act of terror can never be settled in any sane mind. What seems more poignant is the unfolding of events on that day in June 1944. A mere 74 years ago, where 24 hours saw terror run through this community leaving only the echo of the victims’ screams for mercy.

200 Nazis stormed the village on 10th June where upon they rounded up the community. Women and children were taken to the church and men and boys over 15 were gathered, ostensibly for the purpose of an identity check and a  search for explosives and weapons. Those held captive in the church, after a failed attempt to gas them, were shot and then set alight. The men were separated into 6 groups and taken to different barns, where upon they were shot from the knees down. Only intending to wound and prevent escape, the Nazis then covered them in straw and wood and set them on fire, left to die the most horrific death. 

Then they burnt the whole village, looted homes and businesses and left without any explanation. The Nazi troops  headed up to Normandy to join the fight against Allied troops from the D-Day landings. In Devine retribution, many of those soldiers and the Nazi commander Diekmann, who ordered the massacre were killed and in a cruel twist of fate never brought to justice. 

 

Oradour’s memory

Some time after the massacre and whilst the smoke still rose to the sky, French President, Charles de Gaulle ordered the village remains to be left as a memorial. To honour one of the biggest massacres on French soil, Oradour would serve as a reminder of the atrocities, the victims and the horror. Only 6 people survived; 642 were brutally murdered, including 205 children and each and every one will be remembered by generations to come. To walk in the footsteps of their terrified souls as they were led to their deaths is a surreal and sobering act. And if you are in the area, a visit to this village martyr to pay your respects is a must.

Whilst it seems the world has not learned its lesson, we can only hope that memorial sites like Oradour serve to remind us of the importance of kindness, love and respect. 

Check out our Gallery of photos from our current World War visit by clicking the image below.

 

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Other War Memorial posts you might like to read….

A moving visit to Treblinka, Poland

A moving visit to Treblinka, Poland

Treblinka, a seemingly lost world, hidden in the forest, out of sight although never out of mind for Poland’s World War 2 memorials. A place that invokes the stirring of emotion from deep within the belly of any visitor intent on learning more about the atrocities of this war’s holocaust and on paying their respects to the hundreds of thousands of people who died mercilessly here.

We have been inspired during our travels to continue our World War education since stumbling upon a cemetery in Slovenia that piqued our interested in understanding the real nuances of the two wars and fill in the shameful gaps from our schooling education. It was time we put this right and through our learning enable us to honour those who died at the hands of power, greed and dominance. Our most recent exploration was at Colditz in Germany.

Yet we knew that Poland would give us a completely different perspective of the war-time experiences and that it would feature heavily in our trip given that Auschwitz was an intended destination. Yet little did we realise just how much Poland would reveal to us as we committed to our educational journey from the depths of Owl Mountain in Silesia in the south to the horrors of Treblinka in the north east.

My research found Treblinka Extermination Camp some time ago, and after visiting Warsaw and understanding more about the Ghetto and Uprising, it felt an absolute must. A must because for almost 1 million people, this was to be their final destination, wrapped up in the vial guise of resettlement.

An emotional ride – Treblinka 1

We set out early before any coaches arrived so we could treasure the peace that Treblinka demanded. The first thing that struck me was how abruptly the sound stopped. We had parked overnight in our camper in the museum car park and were entertained by the songs from the Golden Oriels.  Their wolf-whistle calls made me smile despite the sobriety of the occasion – it was a lovely alarm call. Yet as we walked through the mock gates of the Treblinka 1 Memorial Site, it was as though there was an invisible barbed wire fence that they could not or would not pass. And their sound ceased in the tiniest of moments that you could almost miss it. It was striking in its subtly.

The second thing that created an instant impact were the ribbons threaded through the pine forest as we approached the Memorial.  Each strand having half a dozen names of those who perished here. Weaving in and out of the thicket of trees, thousands of names hanging amongst the forest that was their deathly hallow, suddenly became people – real personalities who lived, breathed and died in this hidden camp. What an amazing testimony to their lives; forever immortalised, forever held in our loving thoughts. 

Treblinka was destroyed and burnt to the ground at the end of the war, so in truth there isn’t much to see visually of the camp, for which I feel thankful in some ways. Although the reconstruction of the platform and railway line gave me an instant feeling of reality. The enormity of Treblinka’s horror started to dawn on me; the huge stones, each one dedicated to a country who lost the lives of their loved ones; Bulgaria, Greece, Ukraine, France, Czech Republic, Poland to name just a few.  Although nothing would prepare me for the next vision as I turned the corner. A huge memorial stone that covers over the gas chamber, stands with strength and defiance against a epoc that saw no respect for humanity and cultural diversity. The Father stone carved with the suffering plight of the Jews held my gaze, although it is the stone forest that surrounds it that really took away my breath. Each stone representing a town, city or community that lost their families to the will of the Nazis. Thousands of them, large and small, scattered across the acres in front of me. It left me incredulous at the horror inflicted by man against man! And when they created this memorial in the late 1950’s, they created an inscription that simply states ‘Never Again!’

Two simple words begging us to serve up a dish of compassion not hatred – yet lessons have not been learnt. Ethnic cleansing continues to still the beating hearts of those persecuted by regimes believing in their own supremacy. Sadly humility towards our neighbour is an all too distant relation that has yet to come into the family fold. When will we learn from these painful memories that scar our history?  Surely it is time for us to stop our ego’s demand for dominance and to start to live with love, hope and unity?

 

The path to Treblinka 2

I thought that Treblinka 1 was the core of the experience, although as we walked towards the Black Road which was built by the prisoners, we realised that it lead to something more. More horror, more death and more sorrow.

The cobbled path was hard to walk on, although I felt it was important to honour all those who knelt on bleeding knees, in the heat of the day, laying each stone to create the path. The path to their deaths. I didn’t want to take the easy route – I wanted my feet to feel the discomfort of the uneven surface. They gave their lives for this path and the least I could do was walk on it in their memory.

The deeper into the forest we went – 2.5km to be specific, something strange began to happen. I became acutely aware of the soil, which was strangely blackened, a greyness that was not natural. Nature did not make this path, this was something more. Did this blackness symbolise death or something more sinister? It really didn’t bare thinking about. At the same time though, I noticed an acrid taste at the back of my mouth, almost as if the fumes, the smoke was still lingering in the air. I know in reality that this couldn’t be true, could it? Could the embers still linger? Could the smoke be forever carved deep into the bark and woven amongst the pines? Is this a legacy that the ghosts will never allow to cleanse? I felt their pain in every step and every breath I took.  

In an eerily still forest with little to bring it to life, the only colour came from the yellow butterflies that darted in front of us symbolising transformation and freedom. Beneath our feet nothing grew except the hardiest of grasses and heather. Nothing really flourished here. Even the old quarry that the Nazi’s used to hoodwink the community into thinking this camp was a commercial enterprise, looked lifeless and cold. And it feels right that it was this way.

As we approached Triblinka 2 – the Labour Camp, all that remains are the footings of buildings that stored the Quarry tools or the Zoo for the Guard’s amusement. Although constructed buildings were not needed to imagine the horror here. The cries and tears of those trapped in this place were carried on the breeze.  And yet, I noticed the thousands of pink scabious flowers that danced on the sparse covered carpet that now shields the evidence of Triblinka’s Labour Camp site, (which takes on more of a complexion of an archeological site than a historical horror film). It somehow belies the truth of what lies beneath the surface and the hatred and fear that hung in the air, yet each flower sprung from the earth in salute to each person’s death, a tribute to their heart-beats and a memory not to be forgotten. 

It may be over 70 years ago, although this extermination camp is as real as if it were yesterday. And that is less about the memorials that have been lovingly created and more about what still hangs in the air. A reminder of what has gone before and how it shapes who we are today. The forgiveness of a nation, the healing of a wound so deep and unity in the creation – at least this is what we pray for.

 

In memory of those who have perished, your souls float in the wind as it whistles through the Treblinka forest and we remember each and every one of you.

 

For more information about the horrors of this camp, reputed to have killed the largest number of people, second only to Auschwitz, click here.

The monastery of Montecassino

Imagine our surprise when after 4 hours of motorway driving, fatigue setting in and we had to do a big shop as well, there was a ‘sosta’ on a hill in the monastery carpark…. The town ‘sosta’ looked a bit scruffy.. run down and graffiti everywhere so we headed up the hill…….My goodness is all I’m saying.

Humbled by Obersalzberg’s History

Humbled by Obersalzberg’s History

When it comes to remembering my lessons at school, I have to be honest and say that History wasn’t my favourite – I was more interested in English and Geography.  Although I do remember that the two Great World Wars of the last century most certainly made it onto our curriculum.  And rightly so – they significantly shaped our lives today and so understanding how soldiers gave up their lives fighting for our freedom seems such an important lesson.

So when Myles, who is a bit of a history buff, said he wanted to go to Bavaria’s Berchtesgaden in South-east Germany to see Hilter’s summer retreat, it seemed like too good an opportunity to miss.  For three nights, we wild-camped at the Visitor’s Centre in Konigssee, which itself is a must see, and from Scoobie’s door we had a bird’s eye view (if you pardon the expression) of Kehlsteinhaus – Eagle’s Nest.  This is a lofty building constructed 1,834m up in the mountains above Obersalzburg, to mark Hilter’s 50th Birthday. It isn’t difficult to see why he retreated to this place, as it is literally on top of the world.  I’m sure in some sense this was a symbolic location that fed his obsessional world, as it truly give him a bird’s eye view across his beloved kingdom.

Although it is now a restaurant, there are daily tours up there from May to October depending on the snowfall, where I guess you can get a feel for Hilter’s diplomatic soirees which he conducted up there during his Third Reich reign.

Hitler's Eagle's Nest, Bavaria

Hitler’s Tea House – Eagle’s Nest, Bavaria

After the combination of rain, low cloud and weekend visitors had dispersed, we headed up the mountain towards the car park at Obersalzberg, in eager anticipation of what the day ahead might entail.  We had read that in addition to the special bus ride that you must take up to Kehlsteinhaus, there was also the Dokumentation Obersalzberg, which is a museum recording Hitler’s rule.  However our anticipation soon dissipated as we acknowledged the overcrowded car parks and streams of coaches full of visitors all looking to grasp that  little piece of history from Hitler’s vantage point.  Now it is worth mentioning at this point, that we don’t do queues at the best of times and in the middle of August, in increasingly warm temperatures, the prospect of joining this ensemble of tourists, which looked more like a trail of ants as the minutes went by, did not motivate us one bit.  So we decided to visit the less-talked about Dokumentation Obersalzberg instead, which everyone seemed to be bypassing for some reason.

Dokumentation Obersalzburg

Dokumentation Obersalzburg, Bavaria

This unassuming building, erected in 1999 is an historical site, museum and a place of remembrance. It offers the visitor a detailed guide into the role that this Obersalzberg region played in Hitler’s carving of twentieth century history and a reflective tale of all those who perished under his reign.  Not only that, this building holds many ghosts and secrets that are etched into the walls of the maze of bunkers, dug underneath this unassuming construction, which you are allowed to visit.

So with no queues and virtually the place to ourselves, we gathered up our 2€ Audio Guides (which apparently in German is Audio Guide!!!) and our 3€ a person entry ticket and entered into the halls of history.  Now we did wonder, with curiosity, how the Germans would present this epoch of history, given its potentially sensitive nature and their patriotic values.  So you can imagine our amazement when the first visual image you are greeted with is a huge poster of Hitler in dominant pose surrounded by crowds of adorning fans like he is some sort of pop idol.  And then the images of the emaciated bodies of the concentration camps and public hangings of Jewish Priests, giving you a very clear message that this museum is going to offer a completely ‘no holds barred’ representation.  It was at this point that the historical journey I was about to take would rip at my heart with unforgiving purpose.

What we didn’t realise was that this region of Bavaria known as Obersalzburg, was key in Hilter’s crafting of dominance.  He bought a house on the mountain called Berghof and soon when the German population realised that this was his home, flocked here to capture a glimpse of him, to share the same air he breathed or a stone of gravel that he had walked upon.  They even had to build the current day Train Station in Berchtesgaden to accommodate the crowds. So to protect his territory from invading patriots, Hitler removed the local residents, buying up their property for a pittance.  If they refused his offer, the consequences were forcible eviction or even being sent to the concentration camp in Dachau.  This was one of the many things that shocked me.  I hadn’t realised that his Concentration Camp strategy was significantly before the outbreak of war.  Millions died before war even broke out.

Berghof played a key role in his propaganda campaign which set about manipulating the population to appreciate his greatness.  There were pictures that showed him as a child-friendly, father figure who loved nature.  Equally there were pictures of him with his mistress Eva Braun and of him reading a paper with glasses on – both which he refused to have published because it showed him as being weak and unfocused.

The policies he put in place to raise a generation of Hitler’s youth started from the moment of birth – if children were born imperfect, not only where they ‘removed’, their mothers were sterilised to prevent them from having any more imperfect babies. At the age of 10 children were enlisted into Hitler’s Youth Groups, grooming them with his doctrines.  His dominance was at every level, in every corner and there was no where for you to hide, especially if you happened to disagree with his vision.

The other thing we learnt about the Obersalzburg, was how on April 25 1945, the American allies carried out a bombing raid on this Nazi area, resulting in Hitler’s main residence being flattened – with only one wall now remaining.  The raid was purely an act of defiance, as Hitler had already vanished into the depths of Berlin and the war, for all intents and purposes was over.  It is reported that the flattening the area that had played such an important role in the execution of so many, either in concentration camps or on the battle field felt significant.  And even more interestingly, we didn’t realise that the American’s occupied this region of Bavaria as a recreational area for US troops, building Golf Courses and hotels – and was only handed back to the Bavarian people in 1995.  Never knew that!

The final piece of our Obersalzberg lesson was a trip into the largest remaining bunker of the maze that was built under the mountains linking the Nazi Leaders’ property. Now whilst the modern building housing the museum is fascinating and penetrates deep into your soul, this remaining piece of history is eerily decorated with ghosts from the past and graffiti from the American soldiers who occupied this area after the war.  The bunker is damp, dark and silent with echoes of German plotting.  Rooms set out as hospitals, kitchens, stores and toilets, all hallmark the underground life that epitomises Hitler’s reign and fight for dominance.  There is nothing you can say as you walk through the tunnels, as they leave you haunted by the evil and the sense of death.  Although this may not have been a place of physical death, it is most certainly the representation of death, as those who walked the floors of this Nazi maze were entirely responsible for the horror that will be with us for centuries to come.  The man, that prior to World War 2 was the most loved leader in the world, soon turned into the most hated figure in history, responsible for the deaths of over 60 million people.

Dokumentation Obersalzberg

Dokumentation Obersalzberg

Coming out of the Dokumentation was a surreal experience as the museum draws you into its past and into the soul of the perpetrator who changed the world as we know it.   How could you put that 90 minute’s experience into words? I felt very humbled by the whole thing and we both agreed that adding to that ant-line of tourists to visit the Kehlsteinhaus to see what was probably a stunning view, might feel a bit superficial  after our historical submergence.  So we left the queues, knowing that for us the Dokumentation remembrance tour had affected us deeply.

As we reflected, Myles acknowledged that this was just the experience he had hoped for, being able to fill in so many gaps of our historical tapestry. We felt bizarrely enriched by our visit, forever affected by its raw honesty and humbled by the death and fight of so many in their pursuit of our freedom.  If you are ever in this region, we implore you to visit – there will be a bit of you that will never be quite the same again.  Until then, ‘Lest we forget!’

Dokumentation Obersalzberg website