Oradour Sur Glane- A national memorial to the innocents
A memorial to the innocents
Situated in the Haute Vienne, between St-Junien and Bellac, Oradour is a village like no other. It is kept as a memorial to the horrific massacre that was visited on it and its inhabitants.
We have commissioned a piece from author and historian David M. Thomas on the events at Oradour. A moving piece carefully researched giving an insight in to the every day lives of those who lost their lives.
Introduction to Oradour sur Glane
Writing about Oradour-sur-Glane is difficult. I have visited its charred and unsteady ruins five times now and have come away each time with a knot in the throat tighter than before. The word ‘tragedy’ is too often applied to the planned massacre at Oradour which took place on 10th June 1944; too often and abusively. Tragedy, it seems to me, is the work of the gods interfering in the ways of men, rendering them impotent to affect events. War and massacre, on the other hand, are the work of men conscious of their actions, and whether they choose to undertake them or not has nothing to do with the will of the gods. If we have to use the word ‘tragedy’ at all, it is incontrovertible that Oradour is not simply one tragedy confined to a village deep in the heart of France, but several, equally potent tragedies.
And where to begin when writing on Oradour? What date can serve as starting point in attempting to achieve historical perspective and necessary context? The fateful 10th June? The Allied landings in Normandy a few days previously on 6th June? Or do we need to go back to the French defeat of 1940, dividing the nation into Occupied France and the so-called Zone Libre administered by the Vichy régime? The German invasion of the ‘Free Zone’ on 11th November 1942? Equally, if we are not to neglect the perhaps surprising Spanish dimension to events in Oradour, 1936 could serve as some sort of guide to understanding. By the same token, you could begin as far back as 1870, the year of the Franco-Prussian War which led to the proclamation of the German Reich in the Palace of Versailles, no less, and the annexation to Germany of the provinces of Alsace and Lorraine, whose people thereafter would be considered as ‘Reichsdeutsche’, at least, on the other side of the Rhine.
The bibliography on Oradour is already vast, and can only get more so. As a librarian specialising in Limousin history wryly commented to me recently: works on Oradour, ce n’est pas ça qui manque. Many of the works are uneven and inconsistent, often because the accounts of witnesses and actors are uneven and inconsistent, and for a number of reasons. Foreign names, especially German but also Spanish or Italian, are often misspelled by French or British authors. Silences have endured, whether it be on the part of those SS involved in the massacre, or on the part of resistants who did or do not wish to incriminate themselves or others. To this day, for example, it is not known which Limousin resistance group killed SS-Sturmbannführer Helmut Kämpfe, who played no active role in the massacre but who was nonetheless central to it. Sadly too, there has emerged a revisionist ‘school’ on the subject, and which no serious historian would dignify with attention. That aside, once you touch on the subject of Oradour, it is easy to become submerged by dates, names, statistics, indeed, by the entire history of Europe of the first half of the twentieth century.
And the problem with this is that the real people of Oradour, living and breathing, albeit until 10th June, tend to be forgotten. Victims tend to become just that and no more, mere names all with the same date and hour of death. The roll-call is horrific, but all too often frozen in commemorative plaques of marble, names and dates that seem to have no past, none of the dimensions of each and every human being wherever they be found. The same holds for the Oradour that was, and yet it was a village with the smells and music and voices and laughter of villages anywhere else. It is hard to believe it today, walking amid ruins which numb the senses, but fresh-cut grass smelled as good then as it does today.
It is for this reason that what follows is not properly the work of an historian, but rather that of one who tries simply to imagine who these people were, and how they lived. I have tried to remain faithful to all the imperatives incumbent on the historian. No name is invented, no nickname, nor any date. The story of how they died is a matter of historical record, one which owes an imperishable debt to the courage and unflagging efforts of Robert Hébras, one of the few survivors. The story of why they died is another matter.
One shudders to think how many times Robert Hébras or any of the survivors had to revisit the nightmare in the years and decades that followed 10th June 1944, and what I attempt here cannot for one iota of a second compare. It is far easier. It is only the imagined nightmare of a sleepwalker borrowing time from a long-distant future, free to walk among the people of Oradour, unseen and unheard, and free, equally, to walk away, to return to his own time. It is the nightmare of one who, alone, can conjugate events as they unfold, albeit in the imperfect, of one who will not share the fate of six hundred and forty-two people who had no idea of what was about to befall them.
Life in Oradour sur Glane under Occupation
At the top of the main street, a tram slows noisily on the rails by the Post Office, arriving from St.-Junien and Bussière Poitevine. Comes to a halt. People get on, people get off, some with bundles under their arms. Passengers cast an idle glance at the mairie opposite, with the boys’ school round the back. A bell rings inside and the tram continues on its way to Limoges, seventeen kilometres away as the crow flies, twenty-four as the tram rides. Just another Saturday in Oradour-sur-Glane, albeit in wartime. Saturday is a work day, a school day, and many are the folk living here or nearabouts who work further afield, in Limoges, St.-Junien ten kilometres to the west, at the paper mill in Saillat-sur-Vienne near St.-Junien, or in the numerous sawmills of this densely forested region.
Those who have come off the tram head down the street as though drawn by a magnet toward the centre, apart from one who heads into the post office on the left, who will raise his hat on seeing the postmaster behind the counter. All telephone lines are working normally. There’s precious little to attract anyone at the top of the village apart from the road to Javerdat and the farms around. There are not many people are abroad at all, but then again it’s dinner time. It’s warm, by no means punishingly so, but enough for some men to discard their shirts and sit in their vests at the dinner table. All is quiet at the Dupic emporium on the right, which struggles to thrive because fabrics are now at a premium, channelled into uniforms for the war effort of the Occupant. Still, there are always first communions and mariages to be catered for.A wailing comes from further down, nothing serious, probably a child who’s just been clipped round the ear. The smart money would be on one of the Poutarauds, because Renée Poutaraud has seven children, God love her. Or maybe one of them has slipped on a patch of oil in Pierre-Henri’s garage. Enfin, Pierre-Henri it says on his état civil issued at the mairie there, but he’s known as just Pierre. Today should be a little easier for his wife, though: the grandmother living outside of Oradour is taking care of Simone, a handful at nearly five, to give madame Poutaraud a bit of a rest.
The houses and business premises here are neat and trim, modest while spacious, two storeys mostly, occasionally three. The paint does not peel on the pinned-back shutters of green and red and blue, nor on the signs over shops. The red-tiled roofs slope gently down. Doorsteps worn in the middle are scrubbed and swept clean. The only unsightly note is the concrete posts some six metres high which relay the tram wires overhead, but they are just as invisible to the inhabitants as the sleepwalker is. Toilets are round the back, of course, as is the washing on the lines which you glimpse in the gaps between houses, shirts and table-cloths pegged up alongside stockings and nappies and collars and girdles.
Were it the fifteenth of the month, were it the early hours of the day, were it the hayday years before the War, the place would have been much livlier. The sleepwalker could have expected to see cattle disembarking from the goods compartments of the tram, or sheep, or pigs, because the fifteenth of the month used to mean the foire in Oradour: market day. The cattle would be driven down through the village by the rue Principale, and at the half-way point their drivers, dressed in three-quarter-length smocks with hats tilted back on their heads, would turn them into the Champ de Foire and the pens awaiting them. These were the maquignons, or livestock traders, who came in from the country around and lit up the village once a month with their stentorian banter, their weather-beaten, plump faces bristling with extravagant moustaches. It used to be a ritual for these colourful men to congregate, once business concluded at midday, for a gargantuan dinner at Mme. Desvignes’s place on the Champ de Foire, may she rest in peace.
The invisible sleepwalker dwells a moment by the small tram station and thinks of Mme. Desvignes, because the memory of her is comforting, because she died in her bed, in an age not so far off when to die in Oradour meant dying peacefully.
Nothing used to give her more satisfaction than to see these men with their rough-and-ready ways unable to finish the food she put before them. Her place is still there, one of the arc of buildings on the southern side of the Champ de Foire, unchanged, for the moment. Children used to peer in on the spectacle of the maquignons relaxing with their hats still on at the long, long table running down the middle between the whitewashed walls. Mme. Desvignes would bring them their favourite apéritif, and then she would ladle out soup from a huge bowl for the first course, vegetables with lardons. The maquignons would tuck in noisily, pouring out the wine, each of them telling how they had just concluded the business deal of the century. Their plates all but empty, they would pour wine over the back of the spoon in their plates, swill the plate round before tilting their heads back to polish off the very last of the soup. Chabrol, the ritual is called here, in Oradour as everywhere else in the Limousin, faire chabrol. Moustaches would be wiped with the back of sleeves. The next dish would be immense helpings of savoury cabbage, followed by plates heaped with white beans, huge dishes of salad, then fromage blanc. And Mme. Desvignes always used to pour them ‘a drop’ on the house, after the coffee, to help the food down.
It does the sleepwalker good to remember Mme. Desvignes. There is nothing there to knot the stomach or to be paralysed with anguish and foreboding.
Dinner-time in Oradour, on Saturday 10th June, 1944. And dinner- time takes the best part of two hours here, stretching out between the midday break and two in the afternoon. It is wartime, rationing is strict, very strict throughout France, but the people of Oradour, called Radounauds, generally eat well, or at least, better than townfolk. Everything is rationed now, bread, milk, tobacco, petrol, and even wine. One of the bakers, monsieur Compain who has the boulangerie on the Champ de Foire, has reverted to doing his rounds in the countryside on horseback. Tobacco is only issued on certain days, and some have come in from their hamlets especially, because a delivery is expected today. But Oradour suffers less from the privations than, say, people in Limoges. There are vegetable plots or fruit trees at the back of houses, the undulating forest on the surrounding hills is alive with with fowl and boar, and the farms close by or in the outlying hamlets provide milk, and meat. There are apple orchards, chestnut and walnut trees in abundance, rich in proteins. The river Glane, down behind the church at the far end of the village, is hopping with trout.
The men go hunting. Children catch frogs at the onset of Summer down by the pond near the Lauze farm on the road to St.-Junien, dangling twigs of hazel tipped with a bit of red cloth over the water, and the frogs take the bait. When, in Autumn, showers alternate with sunny spells, the woods abound with mushrooms and Radoundaudes and Radounauds come home with armfuls. There are also the much-prized cèpes to be had, if you know where to look for them, and Madame Brissaud knows where to look for them, though she never tells anyone.
She is the mother of Martial Brissaud, who is now a young man of twenty-four. ‘Mimi’ to his friends, and one of his closest friends is Robert Hébras, twenty-five. They are both founder-members and players of the U.S.O., the Union sportive d’Oradour, which is to say the football club. One of their most fiercely contested matches was against the team also called Oradour, from Oradour-sur-Vayres, a good twenty kilometres to the south-west. Nil-nil at half time, and the bruises to show for it. Then three goals in the second half for the boys from the Glane, an epic encounter down at the little ground at Bellevue, a kilometer to the south of Oradour. In fact, there are three Oradours in the Haute-Vienne département, with a fourth just over the border in the Charente. The name is unremarkable, for an ‘oradour’ in Occitan is an ‘oratoire’ in French, or an ‘oratory’ in English.
Martial Brissaud has lately been working with his father the cartwright, his clothes and hair often bearing the scent of beech or elm, oak and maple, indeed ash. His father is a veteran lucky to have survived the Great War, even though he lost a leg. The father of their friend, Pierre Dupic, lost an eye. Neither of the fathers talks about the Great War, no more so than Jean Hébras, Robert’s father, who also fought in the conflict which made widows of numerous women here.
Robert Hébras lives just here, on the left, where you can hear music on the radio in the kitchen, a bit further down on the main street from the tram station. The wireless only gets patchy reception of the BBC, and only the broadcasts in English, which no-one understands. They have, however, at least understood that there has been an Allied landing in Normany four days ago, though its outcome remains uncertain. Robert is a mechanic at a garage in Limoges. His father, a former electrician, is now retired but still very active, helping out on the farms, lending a hand here and there, with the beasts, the carts, the repairs, whatever. Today he’s out on farm in St.-Victurnien, having crossed the bridge over the Glane borrowed by trams, bicycles and carts. His father is not expected back until late afternoon. Mme. Marie Hébras, néé Mérigout, is a 51-year-old seamstress who, like many Oradour women, also sews for the world-renowned glovemakers of St.-Junien. Indeed, the whirring and thumping of sewing machines seems to be part of the landscape here. Robert has three sisters. Odette is now married and living away on a farm in the hamlet called Pouyol; Georgette works as an assistant at the Desourteaux bakery not a minute’s walk from home; and then there is little Denise, aged nine, on her dinner break.
This morning Robert went round some neighbours’ to install an electricity socket for them, as promised, but he’s kicking his heels, feeling at a loose end. Normally he works on Saturdays like everyone else, but today he’s having his dinner at home, wondering what the afternoon will bring. Two days ago, a couple of Wehrmacht officers turned up at the garage in Limoges and there was a heated dispute with the owner. Robert is by now used to seeing Germans in Limoges, ordinary soldiers, Gestapo, and just recently some SS. There’s the hated Milice as well, who work for the Germans, with their leather jackets of a dark yellow that fades into russet. This time the Germans wanted to requisition all the vehicles in the garage and monsieur Mounet, the patron, refused, saying that the repairs of his clients had to come first. The Germans said the matter wouldn’t end there, threatened repercussions. Monsieur Mounet fears that ‘repercussions’ might mean sending Robert off to Germany on his S.T.O., on the Service de travail obligatoire to which all young Frenchmen aged between twenty-one and thirty-five are liable.
The furthest Robert has ever been in his life was a day trip to Arcachon to see the sea, the reward for having, with three other boys from Oradour, passed his certificat d’études at the age of fourteen. It was the first time he took a train. His head dizzied at Limoges station on hearing the announcer calling names such as Bordeaux, Lyon and Paris. Paris! And when the train got up full steam he saw all these exotic landscapes peeling away before his eyes at a speed unimaginable. He was disappointed not to see whales splashing beside ships at Arcachon as he had imagined they did, but at least he got to go up the mountain of sand, to stand atop the Dune de Pilat, and see the sea, the waves, the seagulls wheeling and shrieking, the white foam rolling in on the beach, and the smells! Never had he smelled anything like that before. Already, Robert Hébras has seen more than most people in Oradour of the world beyond, apart, of course, from the men called up during the Great War. But Germany... Germany, no, that would be too bad. It is for this reason that he is idle today, keeping his head down in Oradour, as monsieur Mounet suggested he should, until the dust settles on the affair of the requisitioned vehicles.
They won’t have finished their dinner for a while yet. Then Georgette will attend to the washing up and madame Hébras’s sewing machine will start up again. The sleepwalker, unheard, unseen, has time to continue down the main street, to turn and look back at the mairie, with the boys’ school adjoining it at the back. The mayor is Paul Desourteaux, a doctor seventy-one years of age nominated by the Délégation spéciale of the Vichy authorities in April 1941, a respected and decent man awarded the légion d’honneur in 1917 for distinguished service as officer in the Medical Corps. It was he who greeted President Poincaré-la-Guerre who once blew into Oradour for five minutes on a whistle-stop tour. His little daughter Françoise, known as Alyette, handed the president a bouquet of flowers. One of his eight children, Pascal, is also a doctor, at this moment called away on a visit outside Oradour in his Peugeot 201. Doctors can still get petrol.
One of the specialities of the garage where Robert works is the fitting and maintenance of gazogènes to all types of motorised vehicle. The gazogène is fitted to the roof and converts coal or wood into gas, the fuel on which these vehicles now run. Monsieur Léonard Rousseau’s car, unsurprisingly, has become a gazo now too. It is, or was, a Citroën Rosalie with suspension engine, the kind you see shuddering under the bonnet when the ignition key is turned, the type of car designed by engineers who know only right-angles, fitting, perhaps, for the schoolmaster. This is the car in which he took Robert Hébras to Limoges train station, before the War.
You seldom hear the master’s first name pronounced in Oradour. Monsieur Rousseau, tout court, and everyone knows who you are talking about. In his early fifties, he is a corpulent man whose face glows full of Racine and Molière, and beneath whose thinning pate reside all the titles that made the glory of the Enlightenment. He rules with a fist of iron, but under the grey curve of his schoolmaster’s jacket beats a kindly heart. He chastises the boys with ‘dunderhead’ and ‘numbskull’, but cannot hide his pride when they pass the certificat d’études. His youngest son, Pierre, has the timid, double-chinned face of the fat boy who would normally be picked on, were it not for the fact that he is not quite the full shilling, were he not the schoolmaster’s son. Monsieur Rousseau’s car is parked outside his modest garage, and it will never move from this day forward.
On the fork of the road to St.-Junien, leading off toward the south-west, stands the winemerchant’s, known, with a play on words, as Chai Denis. A little further up the fork, on the same left-hand side of the road, is the house of Valentin, as Robert Hébras and the others still call him, with fruit trees and pumpkins round the back in his garden. When they were children, Jean Valentin, the barber, suspected Robert and his friends of stealing fruit from his garden, and with good reason. He threatened to tell their parents, or measured their feet with a ruler to see if they matched the dimensions of the footprints left at night in the soil. Punitive measures were called for, and one night the gang left on night-time skirmish. They crawled into Valentin’s garden, and with a pen-knife carved a message into the flesh of a small pumpkin. It was only months later, when the pumpkin had grown big and the lettering visible, that the barber discovered the words: VALENTIN EST UN CON. Proof, finally, that he was being robbed by night-time intruders, but no kind of proof he could show to any neighbour or parent without their bursting into laughter.
Jean Valentin, a rounded fifty-something never seen without his straw hat on his head, is not a bad sort. He melts when his wife ‘Titi’ makes his favourite dish of the week. She goes out and buys a loaf of bread from the boulangerie Bouchoule, cuts several slices from it when she gets home, leaves the rest up in the V-shaped bread-rack above the dinner table, where it is safe from mice. She lays the slices in a large, deep plate, puts them to dry on the stove where the vegetable broth is simmering rich with aromas of leek and cabbage. And when Jean Valentin has finished work, she pours the broth over the bread and places the dish before her husband, who does not take off his hat. A symphony of suction ensues, punctuated only by long sighs of satisfaction.
Marie Valentin the barber’s wife, always dressed in a black blouse with her hair tied up in a neat bun, also operates one of the weighbridges for cattle before they are sold at the Champ de Foire. She is so expert at the procedure that she does not need to leave her house, manipulating the machinery from inside, by the window. Children are told not to jump or play on the grille of the bascule, otherwise it will make a racket in the house. The other bascule in the village is further on, as the road slopes steeply down on the way to St.-Junien, beside the well called the Puits de Picat to distinguish it from the other well on the Champ de Foire. Madame Marguerite Rouffanche used to be métayer or tenant farmer here, at the Picat farm, with her husband, used to ladle out the milk into Robert Hébras’s tin bottle, but she has since moved on, is now métayer over at the Gaudy farm out toward Les Bordes.
The Valentin home and the winemerchant Denis stand opposite Robert’s house. Next door to him, piled one on top of the other, live the Godfrin and the Haas families, refugees from the Lorraine. Roger Godfrin, seven years old, prepares to go back to school after the dinner break. His father, Arthur Godfrin, works at the other boulangerie, owned by Marcelin Thomas. Jules-Alphonse Haas found work at the tram company in Limoges when the Lorrains arrived. At thirty-two years of age, he is father to René, three, and to Jules-Paul, a month and a half.
Some of the Lorrains arrived in Oradour in June-July 1940, evacuated from the Lorraine before hostilities began, the Haute-Vienne being but one of the 27 départements over which they were dispersed. In November, between 60,000 and 100,000 more were uprooted, this time expelled by the victorious Nazis for not being sufficiently... German, and this after the annexation to the Reich of the Moselle département, while the rest of the Lorraine became the ‘Zone Interdite’. Most of the Lorrains in Oradour, like the Godfrin family, hail from Charly, near Metz. They had been given one hour to leave their homes in the Moselle, allowed to take with them no more than thirty kilos of belongings. For all that, they have integrated well.
The Alsaciens, on the other hand, are a different kettle of fish. Alors là... The municipality, socialist in 1939, was alerted to their imminent arrival shortly after the declaration of war on Germany. It did its best to arrange accommodation, Radounaudes and Radounauds were there to greet them as the tram rolled in from Limoges, and they arrived... speaking German. Alors là, non mais franchement. Even though they all looked haggard, men, women and children weighed down with sad-looking bundles, it was a bit much.
“Ici on parle français.”
“Oui, quand c’est pas l’Occitan qu’on cause, hein.”
“D’accord, mais jamais l’allemand quand même!”
“Et les Espagnols alors?”
“Oui, mais ils parlent pas allemand, les Espagnols!”
“Mon cher Jean, tu ne sais pas ce qu’ils parlent, les Espagnols.”
The wit with always a word to make light, whether to fend off first-night nerves or just to cheer people up, was André Froussat, nicknamed Dédé. Singer, raconteur, and artisic director of anything and everything theatrical in Oradour, Dédé Froussat has an ear musical enough to be able to distinguish Spanish from Catalan, unlike Jean the blacksmith. Jean Depierrefiche has his forge right next door to Mme. Desvignes’ place on the Champ de Foire where the spectacle of the maquignons used to be seen and, as is the case with innumerable Radounauds, Jean has a second job, one not entirely inappropriate to the first. He is also known here as Jean le tambour. The drum, Dédé would be the first to point out, has little to do with a musical inclination.
When he was fifty-five, Jean Depierrefiche wiped his brow, laid down his hammer and went to unhook the drum on the wall. He strapped the drum onto shoulders like tallboys and stepped out onto the Champ de Foire with a heavy heart. The entire village followed him in solemn procession to the fork of the road to St.-Junien. The sun beat down on a day which still felt of summer, although it was the early autumn of 1939. Valentin the barber came out onto his threshold as doors and first-floor shutters opened at the first roll of Jean’s drum. It was the largest gathering since news of the Armistice in 1918. Jean’s voice boomed as good as any maquignon’s, reading a text which plunged villagers into despair, and of which only two dread words would be retained with any certainty: mobilisation générale.
Not a man given to emotion, the father of Robert Hébras almost wept. His wife was distraught, thinking of her brothers and brothers-in-law who would be called up. The Spaniards stayed silent.
Their war against fascism had lasted three years, only ending in March of that year. They had known the bitterness of defeat, of dreams crushed, had known the dreadful crossing of the Pyrenees in the winter of early ’39, the appalling internment camps erected on French soil for Spanish republicans at Rivesaltes or Argelès or Septfonds. By February 1939, there were a staggering 2,700 Spanish republicans in the Haute-Vienne, one of the most sparsely populated départements in all of France.
Twenty-five of their number, spanning three generations, found their way to small, tranquil Oradour on the banks of the Glane. Catalans mainly, with a sprinkling of Aragonese such as the Gil Espinosa twins, Pilar and Francisca, fourteen-year-olds from Alcañiz, and the numerous Serranos from Murcia, including Armonía, who saw her third birthday just six days ago. Indeed, there is another Armonía, born in Barcelona of the Telles family, about to return to the girls’ school, who is not yet eight years old and never will be. After all their trials, the Spaniards nonetheless feel glad to be here. They have found work, they are good workers, get on well with the locals, and the Catalans are no longer surprised, as they were on arriving, that they speak the same language as these Limousins. They feel almost at home here; feel safe, at least, in a village where no-one locks his door. They have plans that reach into the future, for their children who may one day know what liberty is. In the meantime, bueno, at least you eat every day in Oradour. Armonía, harmony, a name that could have been chosen by Oradour itself.
Listen for their names. Listen to the talk at their dinner table, ay mi niño, qué pena más grande. Ya la una, mira. The bells have chimed one o’clock at the church of Saint-Martin-de-Tours, bronze and iron. Time moves insidiously on. Carmen Silva was born in Bilbao nearly forty years ago, escaped to France when the fascists took the Basque Country in ’37, married a Frenchman called Pinède born at Oloron-Sainte-Marie in the Pyrénées Atlantiques. Silva and pinède, forest and pinegrove. They are Jewish, and used to own a leather-tanning business in Bayonne which brought them into contact with the tanners of St.-Junien. When the persecution of the Jews began in Bayonne, their business was confiscated and they left to seek refuge in St.-Junien, but did not immediately find a flat there. In the meantime, they settled for Oradour and came to like the place so much that when a flat became available in St.-Junien they decided to stay. They live three doors up from the Hébras family and when they think of what has happened to French Jews elsewhere, they consider themselves lucky, extremely lucky. They follow the news more closely than anyone else in Oradour, do not talk of it in front of the children, and amongst themslves, but only amongst themselves, they find the people of Oradour somewhat naïve. Robert Pinède has a handicapped son, André, and two daughters, Jacqueline and Francine. In less than an hour Robert Pinède will walk out and join all the others on their way to the Champ de Foire, with his wife. He will have hidden his children under a concrete stairway at the back of the house, but he will walk out and be counted, to divert attention from them.
Here on the left is the Beaulieu forge, on the corner which opens out onto the Champ de Foire. On the other corner is the pharmacy of monsieur Pascaud. Step just a bit inside the Champ de Foire and you would see the forge of Jean le tambour. But the Champ de Foire can wait. There is time yet. Above the Beaulieu forge are rooms rented out to Martial Machefer and his family, a communist family. Their rooms were searched from top to bottom two and a half years ago by the police, on 21st November 1941. The Communist Party had been declared illegal as early as 1939. The police found nothing, but now things are worse. If there is another search it will be the Milice this time, or the Gestapo. Within the hour, on the desperate pleadings of his wife, Martial Machefer will burn his papers and, limping because of the wound sustained in the Great War, leave the house in a hurry, to effect one of those most unlikely of escapes which owe everything to chance. His wife and children, however, will remain behind.
Héoh, où tu cours si vite comme ça?! In the sleepwalker’s unchanging nightmare this is his favourite moment. The little girl scarpers off. She hasn’t seen the sleepwalker from the future, even though she nearly knocked him off his feet. She is the one he calls l’Insolente. This morning she was sent home from the girls’ school on the route de Payrilhac, which everyone here calls the route des Bordes, because Les Bordes is closer. The route des Bordes comes off further down at a right-angle from the main street on its west-east axis, if you start at the top, just before you get to the church with its heavy bells of bronze and iron. Before the covered market even. Turn left at the café du Chêne by the great oak planted in 1848, and you are on the route des Bordes.
L’Insolente was sent home for answering back to her teacher, perhaps because it was the young Mademoiselle Couty today, standing in for Madame Binet, off sick. Go home, reflect, and come back after dinner with your apology, she was told. As if! She has declared herself free for the day, l’Insolente, has not the slightest intention of going back to school after dinner, and it is this which will save her young life.
Onwards and downwards. A white-haired cassock approaches coming up the main street on a bicyle, the unmistakable figure of l’abbé Chapelle with the black barette on his crown, heading God knows where but not out of the village at any rate. Possibly he has things to discuss with the widow Dagoury in her café shaded by lime trees at the top of the village, for she has sidelines in cement, tombstones and crosses, having taken over these functions from her late husband. Abbé Chapelle’s congregation consists principally of women, the men not even attending the first communion of their children. He is a priest just turned seventy-one noted for the monochord drone of his sermons and catechism classes: Jean-Baptiste Chapelle, and with a name like that what else are you going to be other than a priest? There was a batch of first communions last Sunday. Girls in white gowns clutching bouquets and boys dressed extra smart were photographed on the steps of the church, smiling and timidly proud to be the centre of attention, having momentarily forgotten the pangs of hunger imposed by having to miss out on breakfast. There was Bernadette Desourteaux, there was Anne-Marie Lanot, not yet twelve, and there was Marie-Jeanne Godfrin from the Lorraine, Roger’s sister, five years his senior. The first communiants, Oradour’s last.
The other girls’ school stands on the right-hand side of the main street, on the gentle leftward bend of the road. The Desourteaux garage comes next, where the smells of oil and petrol and rubber still cling despite rationing, as they did at the Poutaraud garage a little while back. The bright red carotte juts out from the wall of the tobacconist’s where Pierre Villatte, 53, is proprietor. He was born in St.-Gence, in the Haute-Vienne. If you were not born in Oradour or very close by, the chances are that you were born very far away. There are people who were born in Italy, Tunisia, Hungary, Poland, and even a man born in New Jersey in 1909, not that Albert Mirablon sounds in the least bit American. Two years ago he had this element changed on his identity papers. Born in an Allied country: could cause problems. Others have false papers as well, such as those who did not turn up when called for the STO, or the escaped prisoner-of-war, Martial Beaubreuil, who is 32 and has fashioned a hiding place for himself in a corner of the kitchen.
There is an iron handrail accompanying seven steps up to the Villatte door which used to open with a tinkling bell into a world of cigarettes and pipe tobacco, of ink, paper, blotting paper, pencils, and a selection on display of the elegant Laguiole range of knives. Pierre Villate’s establishment nonetheless is still the place where you can obtain all the numbered forms and chits with watermarks that make for the daily happiness of tax officials. Seven steps down the other side and you are back on the pavement looking at Besson Fabrics and the Estaminet du Centre owned by monsieur Thomas.
Over the road is the shop where you go to buy clogs and galoshes and which smells gloriously of woodshavings on the floor of his workshop. Monsieur Deglane, a tall man in a large leather apron, invariably sends his clients off to the wheezing bellows of Jean-Baptiste Beaulieu, the other blacksmith, who rents out to Martial Machefer and who bolsters the soles of galoshes with iron for longer wear. Monsieur Deglane’s name could not be more local, though he is absent on business at this moment, one of the many absent from Oradour. Madame Régnier, on the other hand, is a dentist who lives in Limoges and who comes in once a week to Oradour to attend to adults and children just opposite the Valentin house. Her once a week happens to fall on a Saturday.
A bicycle chain grates past the windows of Tissus Besson, another fabric shop with garments draped over dummies with heads modelled in wire or straw. The place to go for the more sober look in female apparel is at the top end of the village, especially if you are looking for communion dresses, chez Léonard Dupic, “tissus et confection”, “articles de mariages”, “literie”, “nouveautés”.
Nouveautés. Up until now, probably the greatest novelty in wartime Oradour was the nighttime arrival of German soldiers on 11th November 1942, on the occasion of the occupation of the Free Zone, one of those moments when small, forgotten places such as Oradour seem to be caught up in the tide of History. The were sounds of vehicles rumbling and backfiring in the dark accompanied by accents which did not belong here. Windows were timidly opened, noses poked out from behind shutters, and people went back to bed. So the Germans had arrived. And then they left again. Even in Limoges the next day there was scant sign of them, but gradually the swastika was unfurled at the Armée de Terre building on the Place Jourdan and the Kommandantur set up at the Hôtel Luk on the corner of the carrefour Tourny, and garages received their first orders for vehicle repairs: orders, as in imperatives, and woe betide anyone thinking of sabotage. Yet hide nor hair of the Germans has been seen in Oradour since their fleeting appearance in late ’42, over a year and a half ago.
Above the door of the Estaminet du Centre, two and a half storeys tall, is a sign reading “Bières Bertrand Mapataud”. In the glass doorway is another, much smaller sign. Days in bars now alternate between JOUR SANS and JOUR AVEC, and today, c’est jour avec, which means that alcohol can be served.
The regulars drink cider made locally, wine or beer, slap down the cards at a table where they play belote or manille. All the sleepwalker knows of card games here is that with manille the most valuable card is the Ten. Women do not come into bars in Oradour, not even when there’s a woman behind the bar. Not out of any sense of poker-faced piety. It’s just not done, that’s all. Girls maybe, especially a bit further down at the café Brandy which caters for the younger crowd, minettes who have not quite yet blossomed like Irène Redon.
“Paraît que c’est son anniversaire aujourd’hui,” says one behind a dark handlebar moustache and a hand of cards held close to his chest.
“Hé oui,” sighs another scratching an eyebrow, looking as though it is he who will end up paying for the glass of Picon rosé, perdant oblige, but there again, there are worse things to lose than a game of cards.
The commune of Oradour totals about two thousand souls, the village itself around seven hundred, and there are several birthdays to be celebrated today. Back at the boys’ school, Christian Desnoyers has stood at the front of the class this morning in short trousers and parted hair, and his teacher and classmates have all chorused bon anniversaire, Christian! Ten years old today. Denise Bardet is twenty-four. Joyeux anniversaire, Denise. Roger Barthélémy is nineteen, born in the lowly eighteenth arrondissement of Paris, another young man who has not yet been called up for his S.T.O. Barthélémy, as in the massacre of St. Bartholomew’s Day in 1572, a date which no teacher has allowed him to forget.
Roger is a handsome lad with a big mop of hair combed back over a smiling forehead, clean-shaven, dapper even in his work clothes, and when dressed up in his suit, elegant. Not for nothing is the cynosure of the village, Irène Redon, to be seen on his arm when there’s a discreet fête or bal musette being held. Irène Redon, his dulcinée. C’est pas beau, l’amour? Bon anniversaire, Roger.
Irène’s parents, Emile with his undetachable béret and Marie, run the épicerie and café on the curve of buildings bulging onto the Champ de Foire from the south side, whence Jean le tambour stepped out with his drum in September 1939. Emile Redon, known as ‘Milou’, also owns the adjacent barn with its cider press. Peasants such as Jean Desbordes used to come round atop their carts pulled by oxen and unload great quantities of apples into Emile’s petrol-powered crusher. The barn would fill with smoke even with the doors open, but once the crushing was finished the age-old rituals took over. The apple pulp was spread and patted out in a wooden frame between two sheets of jute-cloth. The frame was removed, leaving the pulp solid. Boards were placed over the rectangle, and the next batch of pulp was brought in to be treated in the same fashion. And so on, and so on, until the pressing could begin, with the turning turn of the screw and the weight of the boards acting to ease out, at first, a hesitant trickle falling into the large wooden barrel below. The heady smell of applejuice would make onlookers salivate and the children of Tantalus would plead to be allowed to taste the first drops.
Just round from the Redon place on the south-east side of the Champ de Foire, facing the street which runs to the cemetery and the war memorial, is the big barn owned by monsieur Laudy. At the back of the barn is a hayloft, and behind that are three clapiers encroaching onto the Redon property. Clapiers are supposed to house rabbits, but these ones seem to serve just as well for pigs and poultry.
It has just turned one thirty, according to the clock behind the bar, which is bound to be either slow or fast. The ‘Das Reich’ is on the move again, this time heading for Oradour-sur-Glane. A column of Waffen-SS in half-tracked vehicles and lorries has left the Hôtel de la Gare at St.-Junien, armed with machine guns, explosives, grenades standard and incendiary. Some of their ammunition consists of 7.92mm bullets, suitable for light machine guns and infantry rifles, with a cadmium casing containing phosphorous which is released upon contact with oxygen. A second comumn has left Limoges with the same destination, lorries full of Wehrmacht soldiers, and cars manned by the Milice whose eagerness to serve the Occupant knows no bounds other than the prison, the cemetary, or the camps to which they hasten their fellow Frenchmen. In total, there are between 150 and 200 men approaching.
“Salut, beau gosse!” hails monsieur Thomas behind the zinc as in walks Jean le ramoneur with his kit on his back.
A chimney-sweep should have a blackened face. Jean Ito’s face is anything but clean, but today it is not blackened by soot, and, in truth, if people call him Jean the chimney-sweep it is not because there is a host of other Jeans in the village but rather out of kindness. He begins the round of handshakes.
He’s forty-five, lives on his own near the tram station in a shed where the only item of furniture is a mattress on the ground. Jean is a bit simple-minded, teased by some children, does any job people put his way to keep him from going hungry. A bit of roofing here, a bit of digging there, a bit of lugging this or that, wood-chopping, he has learned how to make himself useful despite his backwardness. People are fond of him because he is harmless, because he has a child-like smile beneath his wrinkles, because he would not say boo to a goose. He likes a drop, too, stands there late of an evening with his chope in his hand and a smile on his face which grows bigger and bigger as the night wears on, never understands why he should put a premature end to something he’s enjoying so much. The inevitable comes when perplexity writes itself large over his features, the moment which precedes the crumpling of his frame onto the floor. Never hurts himself when he falls, never a scratch. Then one of the men fishes for a couple of sous in his pocket, hands them to one of the older boys sucking on his lemonade, and the children heave him into a wheelbarrow to take him home to his shed. Everyone watches out for Jean le ramoneur, sees that he comes to no harm.
“C’est pour moi, Jean,” says monsieur Thomas, offering him an absinthe.
“La belle?” asks one of the card players behind.
“Allez,” comes the reply, “la belle.”
The decider. Then back to work, even for the retired. The sleepwalker leaves the Estaminet du Centre while the deciding hand of cards is played, blinks in the bright light outside, sees over the road the house of Denise Bardet, the birthday girl. Next to it is the large Milord barn, then the café du Chêne owned by Lucien Morliéras, who is also milliner and barber, and finally les halles, the covered market with its roof of bright, sloping slates. The Arbre de la Liberté is nearly a hundred years old and in rude good health, a source of comfort and inspiration to Marguerite Foussat, born in 1853, to Gabriel Francillon, born in 1856, as old as Pétain.
Everyone in the Estaminet du Centre knows Marguerite Foussat and Gabriel Francillon, doyens of the village. How could they not? Nobody knows, nobody has even heard of Heinz Bernhard Lammerding, of Dickmann, Stadler, Weidinger, Barth, of Helmut Kämpfe or Karl Gerlach. How could they? If you were to pronounce these names, people would simply shrug their shoulders. The names would not even stick in the mind, because they are German and damn near unpronounceable in any case, just so many Fridolin names like all the rest.
This time it is not the tide of History which will catch up with Oradour; it is the men bearing these names, and they will wipe Oradour-sur-Glane off the face of the earth.
************ The End of part one****************
Click "Play" to watch this short film on the village of Oradour sur Glane.
A museum and visitor centre has been opened relatively recently, displaying photographs of the aftermath, and school pictures prior to the massacre. You enter the village through this centre, walking through a tunnel under the road. At first it's hard to distinguish what you find as any different than old ruined buildings. It's only when you look inside the houses and see the sewing machines, pots and pans and bicycles still lying there in their last resting point that you start to understand what happened here. Seeing these modern artifacts also brings home, especially to the younger generation the fact that 60 years ago is not really that long ago. As you walk around there are placards telling you where various groups of people were killed, you can still make out bullet holes in the walls.
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