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At the going down of the sun ….

Saturday was Toussaint in France.  Toussaint translates coloquially as All Saints Day.  It is commonly referred to as La Fête des Morts – the festival of the dead.  All over France people visit cimitieres and leave large chrysanthemum plants for their departed.  The cemetries are alive with colour – I find it very beautiful and appropriate as Autumn marches increasingly sombrely towards Winter and her chill stark blanket.  Not all find it so – a blog I read and always enjoy FranceSays wrote an excellent piece  just before the Fête describing her preference for the ghoulish and outrageous Halloween festivities on the other side of the pond, she being Canadian by birth.  I understand her sentiments – a preference for a joyful approach to celebrating the departed is entirely reasonable.  Another blogger, Tim Lyon, reminisces about Bonfire Night, his best day of the year and captures perfectly what I remember of those festivities each November 5th, I being English by birth.  Actually I am a bit sour about Halloween – not if you are American or Canadian, you understand but it is another example of British cultural traditions being  trampled by the stampede of Stateside stuff … one of the things I love about France is that it remembers that it is France and refuses to have its own identity ripped assunder.  You can have a ‘special relationship’ with whoever you choose without losing yourself to them.

Back to 1st November.  The Festival of The Dead and no cemetry to visit so what to do to appropriately mark the day?  We have long wanted to visit Oradour-sur-Glane which lies about 100 miles north west of our home, in the Haute Vienne near to Limoges.  On June 10th, 1944 a unit of the 2nd SS Panzer Division (‘Das Reich’) approached the village, encircled it, rounded up all of its inhabitants and massacred them.  642 of them.  Incuding 247 children and infants.  In 1945 Charles de Gaulle decreed that the village must remain untouched, that it should forever bear witness to this and all the other atrocities of the war that ended not quite 70 years ago as I write.  This year is the 100th anniversary of start of the war to end all wars … when will we ever learn.


The village as it stands today – a permanent memorial to its dead and the thousands upon thousands of other martyrdoms across a world at war …

I am not going to attempt to write the history, nor to comment on it.  I am neither qualified to do so nor foolish enough to pretend that I can.  There is plenty written, some by the scant few survivors (6 men escaped from under the piles of burning bodies, 1 was subsequently shot down as he ran; 1 woman escaped through a blown out window of the burning church where all the women and children were first asphyxiated and then shot and burnt).  If you would like to read more you should start with the excellent Oradour.Info site

‘Here, at this place of torment a group of men was massacred and burnt by the Nazis. Collect your thoughts.’

When you arrive at Oradour the route takes you towards the new town around the perimeter of the ruined original.  Parking up in the leafy car park, we settled The Bean in the car – dogs are not allowed and that is entirely appropriate … the idea of a dog innocently cocking its leg in this place is every shade of wrong.  Le Centre de la Memoire opened in April 1999 and replaced the simple kiosk that had previously served as the point of entry and ticket office.  The French government contribute €150,000 a year to the upkeep of the village and there is a determination that this shall be an everlasting commitment.  Lest we forget.  We bought tickets for the exposition as well as the village and it was money well spent.  In fact I think that visiting the village and not getting the whole experience would be futile. The exhibition takes you from 1933 (with a nod back to the German economy following La Grande Geurre) through the rise of Hitler Youth to the outbreak of war, the war itself, the Nazi occupation and Vichy France leading you relentlessly to the crucial date.  There is quite an emphasis on refugees of many nations and of course Jews.  As you would expect many of the images and accounts are more than distressing and I was thankful that we had decided to forego lunch.  Tears fall freely in such a place.  We watched the film which takes you from the peace and tranquility of this pretty, prosperous and unassuming village, contextualises the role of the Maquis (resistance) in the area and walks you through the events of the day.  It is nauseating, unpaletable.  Blinking and silent we tackled the last of the exhibition … the first thing you are confronted with is a list of other massacres and not just in France – Italy, Czechoslovakia, Poland and most shockingly Belarus – 2,243,000 people wiped out representing a quarter of the total population.  I had no idea.  I am ignorant and I am ashamed.  The exhibition throughout is not partisan and this particularly impressed me … that the most appalling, barbarus act imaginable can take place in a place and that the architects of its monument are able to remember and acknowledge other atrocities was, to me, moving in the extreme.


Scattered belongings left where they lay after the SS troops had ransacked and pillaged the village

You can then choose to walk around the ruined village – I should note that not content with murdering all its people and returning to ‘clean up’ the evidence the next day, the entire place was torched so what remains is a skeleton.  As we walked up the main street, holding hands all I could think of was what on earth it must have been like on that day when the rumbling lorries and tanks cut off all means of escape, when at gun point the population was rounded up separating man from wife, mother from son and for some time the people believed (as the soldiers told them) that this was a search for arms which they were safe in the knowledge didn’t exist so they expected that frightening as this was, they would be back to normal life in a few hours and chatting about their bit of excitement in the bars and cafes (10 of them) and over supper.  As normal.  But instead never again would lover hold hands with lover, husband with wife, mother with son because they were butchered.  All of them.  Butchered and burnt.  And to this day no-one knows why.  Theories are put out there, of course.  But no-one actually knows why.  I also thought, maybe oddly, of Jamie Bulger – the little tot killed by schoolboys in Liverpool in 1993.  At the time we were told that the boys didn’t understand what they were doing.  I found that difficult to rationalise and I found his little face at the front of my mind as I reminded myself that many of the assailants in this carnage were little more than boys themselves and that they would have grown up against and amongst the fervour of Hitler rallying his youth to cleanse the world of all but the Aryan.  What did they feel … what on earth did they feel as they slaughtered babies?

There were quite a few visitors – many English in actual fact.  We walked past the sign at the entrance to the village which says simply ‘Souviens-Toi’ … ‘Remember’.  We walked past another sign which said ‘Silence’.  I have to say that most ignored that polite request.  Many were taking pictures – I found this hard.  Particularly when a young man prepared to pose leaning on the doctors car. This is probably the best known symbol of the village …  Doctor Desorteaux arrived back from tending a patient somewhere in the Commune  and joined his father, the Mayor where he and the villagers had been rounded up on the Champs de Foires (village green) and waited his fate.  I wonder who he had been treating – a woman in the early stages of child-birth perhaps … maybe he said he would return later and see how she was progressing, or an elderly patient bedridden who he saw several times a week.  I wonder how long they waited for him to return before the news reached them that he and the whole of the village were no more.  (remember a Commune in France is like a Parish in the UK … it is not simply the village at its head but generally will have some or many outlying hamlets and farms within it). I wonder if they cursed him for being late with the medicine he said he would return with.  I wonder.  Because all I can do is wonder.  I can’t feel – how can I begin to?  Me, in my cosy little world desensitised by images played out on our TV screens of warzones the world over because we never ever learn.  Go to Oradour – hear the voices echoing on the village green, the rhythm of ordinary life and think.  Think what it actually means to go to war.  Then vow that you never will.  That you will do all that you can to stop the politicians from allowing us to be subjected to such vile, futile and self-serving actions.  Tell them that they are no better than Hitler – if you dare.


The Doctor’s Car

I should note that the photographs that illustrate this piece are not mine – they have all been harvested from the internet.  Although we had a camera with us, we felt it entirely wrong and rather mawkish to take pictures in this place which is a killing field – the place where so many where slaughtered and who can have no grave because their assailants saw fit to destroy the corpses to render it impossible to identify them.  These God-fearing Catholics, many slain in their Church have no place to lie in peace.  We also chose not to walk through the village cemetary to the memorial, it being Toussaint and there being families leaving chrysanthemums for their departed.  However sombre, La Fête des Morts is a fitting festival and the French have it right in continuing to celebrate within their own culture.  In my opinion.

They shall grow not old, as we that are left grow old:
Age shall not weary them, nor the years condemn.
At the going down of the sun and in the morning
We will remember them.

Laurence Binyon – ‘For the Fallen’

PS:  I said that I feel that it would be futile to visit the village without experiencing the exhibition.  The village is beautifully kept – it is a memorial in the most poignant way and though things have been left as they were it is clean and tidy – there is no blood, there are no remains of the day beyond the buildings and some things that lie where they fell that day and, as though to underline that the assasins were God fearing men, Christ still hangs on his Cross outside the hull of the Church.  To me this is entirely appropriate – any more and it would be an invitation to the most morbid sort of voyeurism.  But the result is cleaned and to understand the brutality of the day, you need to read the seering words and see the ghastly images laid out in the museum.


13 Comments Post a comment
  1. There is no adjective sufficiently powerful to describe Oradour. We’ve visited often and walked around speechless. I have also taken many guests there. On one memorable occasion I took an American friend, a history buff. I’d explained fully about Oradour and the happenings there, but obviously not well enough. When we left, I asked him how it made him feel.

    “Well, I’m real shocked,” he said. “You’d think these guys would look after the place, but it’s falling down. They need to get some repairs done to the walls and replace the roofs.”

    Angouleme last week was overflowing with merrymakers dressed in spooky Halloween costumes, so I think our Atlantic friends’ customs are creeping their way over here.

    And TOH came home with a beautiful plant for me last week – a lovely red chrysanthemum. He is unaware of their significance, and I couldn’t be unkind enough to tell him. 🙂

    November 4, 2014
    • Now that is a shocker … I think sometimes people think they are listening and appear to be but in fact they are hearing what they think one is saying. That is the kind response the American 🙂 Our friends over the Atlantic are creeping ever forwards with their culture and France is not immune, of course. As to your OH – well how sweet of him and how sweet of you not to enlighten him … it should be noted that Two Brains has NEVER bought me flowers …. 😉

      November 4, 2014
  2. We happily participate in the Halloween merriment because we have children. As for American culture creeping across the globe, I remember that it was impossible to find Halloween decorations in France (when we held an expat celebration to commemorate the holiday I carved a summer squash) and there were no trick-or-treaters. France might be safe yet.

    About Oradour, we never made the trip, partially because we had the boys. Even Normandy was a hard spot to visit with them, they are just too young to understand and too young to behave appropriately. The lives snuffed out during WWII are just something I can’t wrap my mind around. Between the Russians and the Germans, Latvia (where my grandparents fled from) also lost a quarter of their population. More, as tens of thousands of others ended up in displaced persons camps, labor camps in Siberia… Lest we forget. And it’s my humble opinion we have forgotten in a sense, with the terrible things happening in Eastern Europe garnering no response from the rest of the world.

    November 4, 2014
    • Liene K, I think that France will remain immune for some time to come – we Brits, despite our legendary stiff upper lip and backbone are very easy to sell to!

      Thank you for educating me about Latvia and I entirely agree that we have forgotten … the world wars taught us nothing and particularly taught the superpowers zippo.

      November 4, 2014
  3. “lest we forget”

    But we have forgotten , and keep repeating these atrocities … to varying degrees all over the World 🙁

    June 16, 2016
    • Collectively we have. But individually we can be mindful and try to quietly and peacefully move others. It’s the hardest thing to remain hopeful, dear sensitive Turtle, but try with me even as you cry with me …. Hugs to you ☀️

      June 16, 2016
      • I will keep on trying for sure .
        Thank you

        June 16, 2016
      • And how can we not “hate” , when we come across some of these atrocities , and I don’t mean hating a people or a nation , I mean hating the perpetrators and the instigators ? As much as we might try to put ourselves in others’ minds and try to understand the context in which it happened some things are simply unacceptable and impossible to understand .
        Then when we came to hate (and some of us come across really bad people in our everyday’s lives ) how to release (change that feeling) that ?
        Sorry to dump this here , but maybe you’ve already managed to do this and will have some ideas you may share .
        Thank you and Turtle Hugs

        June 16, 2016
      • I saved replying to this until I had the time, not wishing to brush over the question with a hasty answer. The first thing I must say is that I understand hatred. But it was my youngest daughter, then aged about 10 years old who asked me to stop using the word because we should hate no-one. She is now 21 and her views have altered but she remains true to the essence of what she said. For my part, I feel that hating and being angry are well and good but that they don’t resolve anything, they do not bring back the dead, they do not comfort the bereaved and they do not heal the wounded. In fact they probably feed the perpetrators. And I refuse to grace wicked, evil people with anything that might make them feel anything other than the odious bile that they have become. So I try instead to count my own good fortune and to understand what I can do to help. I am a highly emotional person by nature and tend to ricochet between highs and lows without warning. My own balance is maintained by seeking out the good in every situation and by attempting to not fuel the fire with a whirlwind of anger but rather to damp it with the dew of decency. Different people use different mechanisms. I must stress that I am not perfect. I feel anger and rage and bitterness and fury and sometimes I let those feelings begin to tarnish my insides. But I try to remain mindful and conscious and to take a beat and if necessary many many beats whilst I get to a mechanism that can quash the negatives and allow the positive energy to release so that I can be of some use. This is not forgiveness, this is not excusing this is simply trying not to become dissolved by fury and outrage but rather to evolve by maintaining a stance of dignity and warmth of spirit.

        June 20, 2016
      • Thank you Dear Osyth 🙂
        Your reply is a whole blog post in itself and I thank you for the thought you put into it . For the past few nights (if I can’t sleep I may just as well do something productive like learning with others and work on becoming a better me) I have been reading your blog from the very first posts -eventually I stopped liking every single post lest you think you were being followed by a maniac 😉 – and the Osyth that shines through gave me the hope that you would be able to answer my above question on handling that very ugly feeling of hate that sometimes washes over us . You might not be perfect 😉 but your careful answer is the perfect one for me right now , and I strongly believe it might resonate with some others .
        I’m looking forward to keep on learning with you , while enjoying your views on life .
        Thank you again for your reply , and strangely it came just when I needed it (ah yes …you’ve got powers 😉 )
        A big big Hug

        June 20, 2016
  4. A beautiful piece. Thank you for sharing this. It has stopped me in my tracks today x

    June 24, 2016
    • Thank you Posh – you are a sensitive soul … Oradour is a place that permeates those that let it.

      June 24, 2016

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