Exploring the silent village
Daphne Beames discovers Oradour-sur-Glane’s tragic past
WHEN an image of Oradour first flashed into focus on TV screens, it was seen by thousands of viewers around the world. Today it still seems hauntingly familiar, though few know the full story. The first episode of the acclaimed
World at War series began with a poignant black-and-white image of a ruined village in France. The picture was of Oradour-sur-Glane – the French village that has remained a ruin and stands as a memorial to those who died one fateful day in 1944.
The name is unusual and strangely surreal. In fact the lilting syllables seem somehow to slip into the recesses of memory – and it was years before we accidentally stumbled upon this unique and moving site.
We were visiting the old city of Limoges – famous for its exquisite deep blue and gold, hand-painted porcelain, and had chosen to stay at the elegant chateau hotel of La Chapelle Saint-Martin, 4km from the airport at Limoges.
This elegant former squire’s hall takes its name from the tiny chapel standing beside its gates. The miniscule church – with its impossibly sloping roof in a shade of weathered crushed-brick – looks for all the world as though it has slipped straight from the pages of Gulliver’s Travels. The hostelry is furnished with fine Louis XVI antiques and stands in a 75-acre park on the edge of an ancient forest. The lowest boughs of the 100-year-old trees sweep gracefully down to brush immaculate lawns surrounding an inviting pool.
But it is the ferns that most impress. A dense undergrowth of delicate, green fronds frames the roads, lanes and pathways – reaffirming the beauty of nature and offering great photographic opportunities. Rural communities have lived in peace here for more than a thousand years.
A name, posted in the hedgerows, proclaims the proximity of Oradour-surGlane – the doomed hamlet still standing tenaciously in its green glade – 10 minutes away from the centre of Limoges.
The tall sign in the large, leafy car park is arresting: it calls for silence and respectfully requests quiet reverence. It asks that visitors pause to remember – in the hope that the massacre t hat occurred here will never be repeated.
There is compliance – and the loudest sound is the trill of birdsong from an attendant choir in the trees.
Walk across the little bridge spanning the River Glane, pass through the gates and take a step back in time. The road winds slightly uphill towards an old oak on the left: the only living witness to the tragedy enacted here 63 years ago. Its presence somehow kaleidoscopes the past into the present.
On June 8, 1944, two days after D-Day and the Normandy landings, a division of the French Resistance blew up a railway bridge at the small town of St Junien – 10km from Oradour. This was on the direct route to the Normandy beaches and the blast slowed the advancing German troops. The SS response was immediate.
An example was made. On June 10, the men of Oradour-sur-Glane were herded into barns and garages while the women and children were shepherded into the church. At 3pm the pupils from the schools arrived, accompanied by their teachers.
That day 642 victims were machinegunned and their bodies burnt.
When, much later, French President Charles De Gaulle visited the site of the martyrdom he made two decisions: to preserve the ruins as a memorial and to rebuild a new Oradour near the first one.
Today tourists can look beyond the sadness of the grey streets towards the new village ahead – a place of new homes where flowers bloom and children play. There is hope here and this image, with the more sombre one, should be added to the message that is taken away.
Make a first stop at the ruined 12thcentury church on the left. It is open to the skies and the blackened remains of the stained glass windows look out over the new green of the countryside. There is an altar of carved, white stone – constantly adorned with fresh flowers – and a worn, stained floor. The height of the windows made it virtually impossible for those imprisoned here to escape and only one woman was able to clamber through and, though wounded, to survive. She lived another 43 years and is, t oday, buried in the village. It is an unforgettable, evocative scene – a place for reverie and reflection.
Moving on through an outdoor museum of winding streets that have remained unchanged and locked in time, the tramlines are still visible in the roads, though no trams run here and the only cars to be seen are the rusting, burnt-out wrecks that ran in the days before the soldiers came. Old-fashioned streetlights and drooping cables are in place but can offer no source of light.
The charred buildings remain as they were left on that terrible day: the roofs have collapsed but the bricks have survived – with some of the homes’ contents. There are old cooking utensils, tangled reels of barbed wire and there is even an old Singer sewing machine. It is strangely disturbing and almost as though these items still speak for owners who were forced to leave them so suddenly.
The houses are well tended: they are swept clean, the ruins are pristine, there is no litter, the lawns are mowed and the trees in the yards are carefully pruned. The homes are just uninhabited. An aerial image shows an immaculate site. Someone is watching over Oradour.
Then there is the cemetery. When the ashes settled - kinsmen carried away their dead. They escorted the ox-drawn carts that bore the innocent victims to their final resting place – beyond the fair ground and beyond t he t own: a level field where the sun shines and eight black marble plaques commemorate t he dead. Two tall columns rise above them: an ossuary and an ancient lantern for the dead.
The name “Oradour” comes from the Latin “oratorium” and means “place of prayer”.
Another observation is that the older generation forms by far the largest percentage of visitors. Perhaps those who lived closer to the time are somehow more able to empathise with the chilling events of 1944.
By way of contrast, make a stop at the next small town: St Junien – named for the patron saint of travellers and hospitality. It is bustling and beautiful and has been a famous glove-making centre since the Middle Ages. There is a fine 11th-century collegiate church boasting a distinctive statue of St Madeleine, clothed entirely in her own blonde hair! It is a popular holiday venue offering many attractive vacation villas and a variety of sporting activities.
Do not leave Limousin without paying court to Limoges. The ancient heart of the old cité first beat for the Romans 2 000 years ago. It was coveted by the English, besieged by King Henry I I , sacked by the Black Prince and finally settled into its creative phase as a centre of excellence for ceramics and enamelwork.
Stop in the old paved town square, where underground parking costs only
€ 3 a day – and admire the architecture of the 13th-century cathedral of St Etienne. Walk to the wonderful, covered food market where everything from freshly caught fish to homemade breads and a selection of amazing cheeses is on display. It is huge, colourful, aromatic and addictive. This is a great gastronomic find. Browse through Galeries Lafayette and the myriad specialist boutiques and handmade chocolate shops. Finally, treat yourself to a personalised, souvenir box of hand-painted Limoges porcelain – the perfect gift.
You will forget neither old Limoges nor its haunting neighbour: the silent village that waits in the forest. Both are truly memorable.
IN RUINS: Oradour-sur-Glane bears silent testament to the horror of WWII.
BLACKENED REMAINS: One woman survived by climbing through a window.