Visiting this village near the city of Limoges in the sparsely populated Haute Vienne Department of France does not involve visiting a place. Rather, it involves visiting a place in time.
Oradour-sur-Glane looks exactly as it did after the fires of June 10, 1944, stopped smoldering, leaving behind only the memories of the villages 642 inhabitants who were inexplicably massacred, and the burned-out shells where there was once a church, a bakery, a deli, a town hall.
Oradour-sur-Glane is purposefully preserved in a state of total ruin so that we never forget the atrocities of war.
Oradour-sur-Glane was a quiet farming commune with no discernable connection to the French resistance movement.
There were certainly strongholds of resistance nearby, and the resistance was absolutely emboldened by the very recent landing of the Allied Forces at Normandy, but the people of Oradour-sur-Glane seemed, for the most part, to keep their heads down in the midst of the Nazi Occupation.
Nevertheless, on the afternoon of June 10, the 2nd Panzer Division of the Waffen-SS began searching farmhouses and buildings on the outskirts of the village. They started in a wide circle, systematically closing the size of that circle until they reached the village, bringing with them every person who they found along the way.
Under the guise of an identity check, the villagers were ordered to gather in the square. Oradour-sur-Glane happened to be unusually busy on June 10 because it was tobacco-ration day. Most of the village population moved into the square, though about 20 people, including four Jewish refugees, opted to hide or run into the woods or across the River Glane. Some who ran would survive the impending massacre.
Once assembled in the town square, the women and children were separated from the men and marched to the church. The men were marched in six different groups to six different buildings throughout the village.
No identity cards were checked.
A large box was brought into the church and placed in the center of the women and children. It soon exploded and filled the church with smoke. As the women and children tried to crawl through windows to escape the suffocating smoke and the scorching flames, they were shot by the waiting soldiers outside.
There was only one survivor from the church. Madame Marguerite Rouffanche climbed out of a window and hid in a bush, ultimately recovering from the gunshot wound she received during her escape.
At the same time that the makeshift bomb went off at the church, the six groups of men were gunned down. The soldiers aimed their gunfire at the legs of their victims, piled straw and wood on top of the fallen men, and lit the straw on fire. They then lit fires throughout the town.
There were five men who somehow survived the massacre.
In all 642 people lost their lives in Oradour-sur-Glane that day.
Though World War II has more than its fair share of atrocities, the maddening, eye-watering part about Oradour-sur-Glane is that there seemed to be no reason for the massacre.
A German soldier had been taken hostage by resistance fighters the previous day but, as in previous incidents of reprisals, the SS made no announcements following the massacre to warn the local population of the consequences of killing a German. In fact, the soldiers of the 2nd Panzer SS-Division were ordered not to talk about the massacre at Oradour-sur-Glane.
There was no mention by the Nazis about Jews hiding in the town, making it likely that the SS did not know of the refugees.
In the end, having a reason for the massacre will not change the outcome for the people who once lived in this quiet farming village in west-central France.
What struck me the most, as I wandered through the wrecked village that is frozen in time, was the tragic irony of a memorial inside the church that all of the villagers would have known well.
It was a memorial to those who lost their lives during WWI and it was riddled with bullet holes from the June 10th massacre.
While it was an intense and difficult day, I am glad that I visited this village that serves as a memorial to the atrocities of war and to the evil of the Nazi Regime.
It is our duty to remember. It is our responsibility to never forget.