As you enter the French village of Oradour-sur-Glane, the sign says, simply, “Souviens-toi.” Remember. I assure you that you will not forget your visit to this remarkable town.
Located about 15 miles west of Limoges, in the central west of France, Oradour-sur-Glane has been forever immortalized for one fateful day in its history: June 10, 1944. On that Saturday, four days after the D-Day invasion, its 642 residents were – there is no other way to put it – massacred by the Nazis. And from that day forward Oradour has been known as Le Village des Martyrs (The Martyrs’ Village).
After V-E Day, President De Gaulle ordered the town preserved as a monument to the horrors of war and as a symbol of Nazi barbarity, in particular (a new Oradour was constructed nearby). Today visitors can walk the streets of this unfortunate town and bear witness to the atrocity committed there over seven decades ago.
What happened in Oradour-sur-Glane?
What happened here on June 10, 1944 is not much in question. But why it occurred is still debated. Some say the Nazis – in particular, the Waffen SS – were seeking revenge for the killing of one of their officers by French Resistance fighters. Others note the proximity in time to the D-Day invasion and claim that the Nazis chose to annihilate this peaceful French village, quite simply, as retaliation. Whatever the reason, the massacre at Oradour was an inexcusable, barbaric war crime.
I had never heard of Oradour-sur-Glane until a road trip last year when my husband and I found ourselves driving from the Loire Valley to the Dordogne region. And there it was on the map. We read a bit about it and had to stop.
The Oradour Museum
As you approach Oradour-sur-Glane, follow the signs reading Village des Martyrs. They’ll lead you to the parking lot for the rust-colored museum. Your visit there will help set the context for what you’re about to witness.
In the museum’s permanent exhibit you’ll find the backstory to Oradour’s sad fate. Don’t miss the 12-minute film that sums up the horror of June 10, with testimonies of a few survivors. It also recalls similar Waffen SS atrocities, although Oradour was the worst of these round-ups and executions of French citizens.
You’ll learn about the years leading up to the massacre: the rise of the Third Reich, France’s Vichy government (Oradour was part of Vichy France), and the build up of the French Resistance. You’ll read about how Oradour was a seemingly ordinary hamlet before June 10, 1944. And, at the last stage of the exhibition, you will pause to reflect before you head out on your visit of the town.
A Chronology of the Events of June 10, 1944
German troops apparently surrounded the town and blocked the exits at around 2 o’clock in the afternoon. The soldiers went door to door, ordering the townspeople to gather in the central marketplace. The residents obliged, under the impression that this was merely a routine check of identity papers.
At about 3 o’clock, the men were separated from the women and children, who were then marched off to the church. About 250 men remained at the square. The soldiers divided the men into groups, walked them to barns and garages where they were sprayed with gunfire – and then burned.
Meanwhile, the soldiers set off tear gas bombs in the church. When the women and children tried to escape through the front doors, they were gunned down. Ultimately the entire town was set on fire.
There were very few survivors, most of those few were lucky enough to be away for the day. A handful who were part of the massacre crawled off and hid in bushes.
Our Walk Through the Village
Oradour-sur-Glane has been captured in time as it was, essentially, on June 11, 1944, after the massacre occurred and the town was burned by the Nazis. My husband and I were already pretty somber after visiting the museum – but viewing Oradour itself is another, deeper level of awareness. Although many tourists were walking alongside us, there was nearly complete silence. Everyone was taking in what took place here, trying to wrap their heads around how this could have been allowed to happen.
Wandering the lanes of the village, we saw ruined buildings everywhere. Placards are posted on many indicating where different business were located or the occupations and names of those who had lived there: quincallerie (hardware store), le forgeron (blacksmith), ecole des filles (girls’ school), coiffeur (hair dresser), menuisier (carpenter), cordonnier (shoe repair).
It was not difficult to imagine life in this village before the 10th of June. We had been visiting small towns around France for two weeks before we arrived at Oradour and the provincial life seemed easy, neighborly, peaceful. Indeed, from all accounts, life was not harsh for Oradour before the Nazis descended on that day. Realizing that the residents were so oblivious to their fate only made the massacre more unfathomable.
We saw the spot where the townspeople were assembled by the Nazis (a plaque there reads, Sur cette place fut rassemblee la population – on this place was gathered the population), unaware of what lay ahead. We saw the locations where men were gunned down (with signs indicating Lieu de supplice – place of execution) and then made our way to the church. We took a long time there, imagining the fear and anxiety of the hundreds of women and children huddled behind those walls on that day, contemplating their horrible fate.
Finally, we came to the town cemetery. An ossuary containing the bones and ashes of the massacre victims rises like an obelisk above the graves. There are dozens of markers listing the names of entire families whose lives were taken that day. As you read them, you’re reminded of the many, many children – more than 200 – who were part of the carnage. It was a sobering end to a heart-rending day.
Ne Plus Jamais
Just as most German schoolchildren take an obligatory field trip to Dachau or Buchenwald, most French children make a pilgrimage to Oradour. Like Dachau and Buchenwald (although, obviously, not on the same scale), Oradour is a stark and startling reminder to all of us that these atrocities cannot be allowed, and must not be forgotten. “Ne plus jamais,” reads the sign at Dachau.
Where to Stay in Oradour-sur-Glane
There are, of course, no hotels in the ruined village of Oradour. But you will find many places to stay in neighboring towns (and in the reconstructed village of Oradour). Consider one of these:
Auberge La Source in nearby Cieux is only six kilometers from Oradour.
La Chapelle Saint Martin is a four-star hotel in Nieul, France, 15 kilometers from The Martyrs’ Village.
Oradour-sur-Glane was written by and photographed by Marie Sherlock for EuropeUpClose.com. Marie Sherlock is an award-winning travel writer (and editor) based in Portland, Oregon. She has had a life-long love affair with all-things-French and tries to visit yearly.