Now we’ve been there, what did we find? Well, the broad reality was everything we expected and more. It’s a ghost town, with a terrible story to tell. It does that – with the help of the visitor centre – well. Not perfectly – the visitor centre concentrates a bit too much on the back story of the Nazi party and the build up to war, with very inconsistent and incomplete translation.
But it’s not just about that, is it? It’s about the village itself. And, in the event, we found that much less affecting than we expected.
Maybe it was the fact it was a hot, sunny day with a flawless blue sky.
Maybe it was all the similar stories we’ve already experienced – Mont Mouchet, Tulle, Brive.
Maybe it was the fact that we were far from alone there – there was, of course, a constant stream of other visitors.
Maybe it was the way in which so few of those visitors seemed to have the most rudimentary understanding of the concepts of respect and appropriate behaviour.
When we first pulled into the car park of the visitor centre, the “Camping Interdit” sign seemed monumentally unnecessary. Surely nobody would even contemplate it? How wrong we were. Having experienced people holding mobile phone conversations, flouting the (again, surely unnecessary?) signs barring smoking and photography, and just holding normal volume conversations – joking and laughing – we could only remind ourselves of George Santayana’s maxim that those who do not remember history are doomed to repeat it.
Similar episodes have already been repeated – many times. Vietnam. Rwanda. Bosnia. Iraq. Afghanistan. And they’ll be repeated again, many many many times.
Sorry if this post’s been a bit of a downer. Normal service will be resumed shortly.
Walking in bright sunshine among the ruins of a village is something we’ve done several times during this trip, but those settlements were thousands of years old. To walk through a village that was ruined less than 70 years ago is very different. Oradour was so obviously like so many French villages we’ve been to. Several cafes, a couple of garages, a doctor, a dentist, hairdressers, stonemason’s workshop, a pretty church and so on. Even a tramline.
Today, it’s mainly parts of the outer walls and anything metal that survive to tell the story of the people who used to live here. Nearly every building has a shell of a sewing machine, many have the tangled springs and twisted pipes of what was once a bed, a bicycle, an old stove, a cooking pot here or there, garages full of rusting car hulks, a mess of chairs and tables in one of the cafes.
Plaques show what the businesses were and the name of the proprietor or family. Plaques also show where people were shot.
Before coming to Oradour, I was worried about how I would feel – I felt sure it would be very emotional and poignant. It was, but it didn’t affect me anywhere near as much as I expected it to. I tried to blot out the other visitors… I tried to imagine what it must have been like to be forced into a village square, to be separated from your menfolk and to be one of more than 450 women and children locked in the tiny church, into which grenades were thrown and which was then set alight. Perhaps your mind protects you by detaching you from such atrocities.
I wish that we could have visited on a less sunny day, early with no one there and I wish I hadn’t gone to the (not inexpensive) museum to read yet again about the rise of Nazism. Although there was information and pictures about Oradour before 10th June 1944, there was little to connect you with the people. With so few direct survivors, there are few eyewitness accounts. However, I wish we had got to the bookshop before entering the museum. We would have found the book by one of the men who escaped, written together with a man who was not in the village that day, but whose family were all killed. They record as much as they can remember about the village and its inhabitants, and tell about the terror of the 10th June and its aftermath. You can buy a short version of this and to read this while walking the streets of the village would give a clearer personal insight into the events that happened here.
The cemetery and official memorials show poignant fragments of the lives lost … the crushed pocket watches stopped around mid to late afternoon. The piece of a child’s letter to her mother. A child’s toy. A pair of spectacles. And the ashes … all that was left after the SS obliterated the existence of so many ordinary innocent people.