Notes from my trip to see the ruins of the village, continued...

I am very glad that I visited Oradour-sur-Glane. It was not at all what I had envisioned.

I had arrived in Oradour-sur-Glane in time to check into my hotel and get to the Center of Memory by 4 p.m. on Saturday, so I immediately went to see the village ruins. The weather was cloudy and overcast; it looked like rain so I took along my umbrella. There was a bit of gentle rain, like teardrops falling from the sky. In the late afternoon on a gray day, the ruins had the look of a haunted place where the ghosts of the dead still walk.

My first sight of the ruined village was accompanied by a feeling of deep sadness. I grew up in Missouri in a town the same size, so I could relate to the people that once lived in Oradour-sur-Glane. My home town was very similar to Oradour-sur-Glane with only one major street, plus a Fairgrounds, a Catholic church, several schools where the children from the surrounding farms were enrolled, a cobbler's workshop across from the church, a smithy and a garage on the main street, and several cafes.

Every house in my home town had a sewing machine and many houses, including mine, had a well, just like Oradour-sur-Glane. My town had a well digger, a blacksmith and a cobbler, the same as Oradur-sur-Glane. My grandmother used Limoges china for our weekly Sunday dinners. Antique dealers from St. Louis used to stop by and try to buy the cups right out of our hands, which used to amaze me.

My home town was located beside a river, and train tracks ran through the town, stopping at the depot on the main street, just like Oradour-sur-Glane. Meeting the train was a social event in my town, just like in Oradour-sur-Glane. The doctor was the most important man in town and his family had been there for generations, just like the Desourteaux family in Oradour-sur-Glane. We were isolated, far from the fighting during World War II, and the war never touched our town, just as the residents of Oradour-sur-Glane had nothing to do with the war going on around them.

So I know what it was like to live in such a village in 1944. Everyone not only knew your name, but the names of all your ancestors, back several generations. There were no address numbers on the houses because everyone picked up his mail at the post office and everyone knew where everyone else lived, and who had lived in the house 50 years ago. When there was a wedding or a funeral, the whole town turned out, and no invitations were necessary. If you ever needed help, you didn't even have to ask. No one carried a set of keys: the houses were left unlocked and the cars were parked with the keys left in the ignition. The church was a sanctuary which was always open. There was no police force because there was no crime.

I could easily imagine what it must have been like on that terrible June day in 1944 when the SS soldiers invaded this peaceful village, and I can understand the use of the term "martyred village." It wasn't just the residents that were murdered - the village itself was murdered. A whole way of life was snuffed out in one afternoon.

The photo below shows a window with an iron S-shaped hook that was used to hold back a shutter when it was open. I was amazed to see this because my house had one just like it.

The next day, on Sunday morning, I looked out my window and saw that the town square was enveloped in fog. I had breakfast at the hotel at 8 o'clock and then went to the Center of Memory. While I was waiting for it to open, I took the photo below, which is the view across the road from the Center of Memory. In the background you can see the Upper Town with the shell of the Desourteaux family home, and a low wall which encircles the ruins. From the road, it is hard to tell that the buildings are nothing but gutted shells, especially in the fog.

I took advantage of the fog that day to take many of the photos on this web site, including the photo below which shows the Beaulieu garage and smithy at the entrance to the Fairgrounds. The village has been frozen in time, left just as it was found the next day after the massacre. I was all alone in the ruins in the early morning, and I could imagine what it must have been like when the horror was first discovered by villagers who had been gone for the day.

In the photo above, you can see a gas pump located right at the curb on the main street, which is on the left. My home town had a similar gas pump on the main street where cars could just park and fill up the gas tank. The street in the foreground is the entrance to the Fairgrounds which was the market place for the town.

There were crowds of visitors going through the ruined village on Sunday afternoon and even the next day, on the first Monday in October. Most of the visitors were French-speaking people over 50 who were on a bus tour, although there were a few school groups also. I noticed that most of the women were wearing dress shoes with high heels, not exactly appropriate for a walk through the village which involves climbing a hill and walking on a rough road. Before I went on my trip, I had purchased a copy of "France for Dummies," which cautioned Americans not to wear sneakers which are not elegant enough for France. I ignored that advice and wore comfortable shoes.

I did not see anyone that I could identify as American, but I did meet three people from the UK. One of them was an 83-year-old woman who was a survivor of the bombing of the English town of Coventry. She mentioned that Coventry was bombed by the Germans because of the factories located there; this was the first time I had ever heard that there was any justification for the bombing of Coventry.

On my taxi ride from the airport, we had passed several hamlets near the road which had stone buildings made of gold colored granite. I realized that I was seeing what the buildings in Oradour looked like before they were destroyed by fire and explosives on June 10, 1944. All the photos that I had seen of the ruins showed the buildings as gray and depressing, blackened by smoke. The reality is that time has softened the appearance of the ruins and the smoke stains have been washed away by 60 years of rain. It is easy to see that this was once a beautiful village even though not much is left of it now.

Comparing photos of the ruins that were taken in 1944 with how the village looks today, I could see that the buildings have deteriorated considerably. I did not see many of the artifacts that had been photographed by others in previous years. It was my impression that the ruins have changed dramatically over the years.

One thing that I noticed in the ruined village is that the air is very fresh and clean, and there are birds singing in the many trees that are still standing. I don't know if an effort has been made to make the ruins look beautiful, but there are attractive plants growing among the stones and on the walls, as shown in the photo above.

The photo above shows plants growing on the wall of one of the ruined buildings. What looks like smoke damage on some of the buildings is actually lichen and moss growing on the walls.

The ruins of the old Oradour-sur-Glane village are enclosed by a low stone wall which looks like it has always been there, although I am sure that it was built after the ruins were designated as a historical site. There is no entry into the village before 9 a.m. so in the summer time there would not be much time to make use of the early morning sun for photos. I had studied maps of the ruined village before my trip, but none of the maps were oriented toward the north, so I could only guess which direction the church faced and where the sun would be on the village green at any given hour.

I spent Saturday afternoon, Sunday and Monday visiting the ruins and the new town. I really got a feel for the village and what it must have been like. On the day that I visited the cemetery, it was very hot, just like the weather on the day of the massacre. The cemetery was a very sad place and at first I could not bring myself to take photos there. The martyrs of Oradour-sur-Glane included 207 children, many of them from the hamlets surrounding the village. I returned later in the day and took a few photos, including the grave of four little girls, all from the same family, which was the saddest sight of all.

I noticed that the cemetery is adjacent to a road and there is a private gate which only those who know the code for opening the lock can enter. This is the entrance for the families of the victims who do not have to go through the ruins to visit the graves. The survivors still return periodically to visit the scene of their childhood, according to Sarah Farmers' book, "Martyred Village."

I feel that the underground crypt, near the cemetery, is not the right place for a museum. It is too large for the small number of relics, too dark and too creepy. Originally, the building was meant to be a tomb for the remains of the victims, but the survivors of Oradour-sur-Glane rejected it and built a new monument to hold the ashes. The displays in the crypt should be moved to the Center of Memory in my humble opinion.


Virtual Tour of the Ruins