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.
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
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.
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.
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.