Que nos caravanes s’avancent
Vers ce lieu marqué par le sang
Une plaie au coeur de la France
Y rappelle à l’indifférence
Le massacre des innocents.
From ‘Chanson de la Caravane d’Oradour’, by Louis Aragon (12 June 1949)
The atrocity of war committed by German forces at the French town of Oradour on the afternoon of 10 June 1944 is well documented. It is not my aim here to echo such accounts by presenting a detailed investigation of the traumatic events, or to seek a way through the veritable labyrinth of national tragedy rhetoric that threatened to over-symbolise Oradour as a victim of war’s brutality, or to indulge in the prolonged mental exhaustion of attempting to ascertain the existential implications of its bitterly lingering aftermath. My aim is rather to simply present my thoughts and observations on an indecently sunny afternoon when I visited the memorial ruins of Oradour some sixty-five years later. But in doing so I shall be obliged to recount to some extent the terrible reality of that day.
After the war President Charles de Gaulle paid a visit to Oradour and declared the ruins a permanent national monument to the suffering of civilians in war. He declared that the site would be sealed off never to be rebuilt and thus remain a reminder to the excesses of totalitarian bestiality. Oradour was to be frozen in time, preserved in the exact state that it was found after the perpetrators had left. Nothing was to be touched or removed and the entire site, virtually unique in the western sphere of the war’s destruction, would be preserved as a nightmarish exhibit for future visitors to pass through and ponder the capacity of mankind to impose murderous destruction on complete strangers with impunity.
Entering Oradour and obeying bold signs to the memorial ruins, I was surprised to find myself in a vast car park, a limitless expanse of tarmac, more suited one would think to a sports complex or shopping mall. There on the sleek asphalt of the car park I observed luxury coaches with their tinted glass and climate controlled interiors spill their chattering cargoes, just as they will now in the newly constructed ‘reception area’ at Auschwitz I in Poland. Cars of suntanned visitors parked obediently between the freshly painted lines, disembarked and moved off all in the same direction, as if drawn by some unspecified magnetic source towards the giant modern bunker of a building that sat in a kind of man-made hollow. I realised as I followed them down the smart new concrete steps to the lower level that this was a relatively new visitors centre, inaugurated in 1999 by President Chirac, a largely superfluous building, the new scourge of every memorial site in Europe, whether merely ruins or formal cemetery. For today it is considered not quite enough to have solely the memorial itself before which to contemplate man’s destructive capability, the intricacies of murderous folly and the resulting nerve straining conclusion. Again and again some shadowy authority slips in between the individual and their private purpose and imposes an artificial construction in their path, which they have to wade through, straddle or circumnavigate before they can get back to the path they thought they were on.
In Auschwitz Museum, for example, one sees such changes as the perceived ‘demand’ or ‘expectation’ of the mass of new visitors delivered to this once remote area. When I visited the snow bound camp in February 1993, in a world before Schindler’s List, it was still petrified in its ex-Soviet austerity. Things seemed little changed from when the camp opened as a museum after the war: the overall effect was unadorned, brutally direct and low key. I remember distinctly that there were only a handful of visitors who had made it out to the site that day on a rickety local bus crammed with country people. I remember during the journey seeing the distinctive old carts and horses waiting at rural cross roads and somehow this backwoods atmosphere was echoed in the museum itself, where only a small amateurish kiosk was in evidence, offering a primitive guidebook whose cover fittingly showed a can of Zyklon B with a sprinkling of pellets and a primitive cafeteria which served soup, dumplings and little else. However, even this seemed indecent given the location. Even sitting sipping a simple bowl of soup seemed in that place repellent, an impertinence, something innately disrespectful. Yet now I learn due to increased visitor demand, a modern pizza restaurant has been installed to sustain those who choose to pass beneath the gate of death.
But this unembellished rawness, this leaving alone and distinct lack of interference did not lessen the tremendous shock of all one witnessed there, it amplified it. But now Auschwitz has like anywhere else felt the first feelers of the intrusive makeover. At Birkenau, the extermination area of the complex, no longer is one allowed as I then did, to enter the ruins of the gas chambers. They are fenced off for fear of further damage. But how does one damage a ruin, in this case a pile of bricks and concrete? One can only contribute to it. But the gas chambers at Birkenau, like the ruined houses at Oradour have become sacred; as they are the only visible existing evidence of the site of the crimes. They must, it is argued, be preserved at any cost, so we will never forget what happened here. The old mantra… now archaeological teams are strenuously engaged in preserving the collapsed remains of rooms in which hundreds of thousands were annihilated, so we will never forget. But one might ask why we need a mound of bricks and sheared concrete barely recognisable as a building to guarantee not forgetting? Are we really any nearer to properly accepting the Holocaust when we gaze stricken with an unavailing numbness at the miserable ruins of the crematoria? When we plod slowly down the fatefully preserved, brief flight of steps into the void of what was the vast undressing room of Krema II? When we descend the same steps thousands never walked back up again and stand in a bare rectangular space littered with rubble trying to imagine the unimaginable scenes enacted there day in day out for two years, what exactly does it mean to ‘not forget’, and to ‘remember’? Furthermore, what does it gain humanity to remember something that cannot be remembered authentically and to its true extent, arguably even by those who were there? To remember events that we are unable to absorb without reducing them through the language of remembrance and the corrosive distance of decades, is to fall short again and again, to circle the crater of a volcano, with our hair and clothes on fire, unable to accept the reality of our imminent incineration.
It is enough during a visit to Auschwitz to pass through the still singing wire, note the stillness of the gallows, enter the freezing barracks filled with dunes of half mouldered shoes, towers of suitcases, drifts of combs, colossal wire nests of spectacles, screes of prosthetic limbs and a tide of women’s hair, some in plaits, still waiting to be packed and sent back to Germany. To see the death block and the black ricochet wall of the execution yard, to walk through the bare gas chamber and see the discoloured bluish shade of the walls from the effect of the gas. To ascend the cold cement steps to the SS watch tower above the gate of death and survey the ochre brick finger chimneys of long rotted huts reaching into the far distance, to walk the long unheated corridor past endless mounted mug shots of inmates in their striped garb, their terrified though at the same time strangely composed faces turned towards the camera by an icy instruction, all with the same crude metal point behind to position their head, all the same in their striped garb, all regimented, all accounted for.
As I swiftly attempted to extricate myself from the visitors’ centre at Oradour, I also thought of the new building tacked onto the Tyne Cot military cemetery at Passchendaele in Flanders. A few years ago one could visit the cemetery, one of the largest and most moving of all the war cemeteries on the continent, unmolested by any outside authority. The cemetery stands on the actual sloping battlefield of Passchendaele, the tops of the German bunkers still visible amongst the serried ranks of headstones. It is a terribly poignant location, which cannot fail to move. But some earnestly ‘creative’ person in the Flemish tourist industry determined mass graves were not enough on their own and resolved to erect a visitors’ centre – for a cemetery.
Already fatigued by the preposterously huge visitors’ centre at Oradour, one leaves by an ignominious rear door and along a carefully manicured path towards the ruined town. Water fountains encourage one to fill up on fluids before the assault, for refreshments will not be available within the memorial perimeter. The visitor is still in the present, the real world at this point, but suddenly as you cross the threshold of a gate you are standing on an old lane visible by the weathered road surface, a lane that has no beginning, but simply appears. The visitor is finally now within the enclosure of Oradour, the ‘martyred town’. The majority turn right and walk uncertainly along the empty lane still with its old grey flanking walls, still shaded in part by mature chestnut trees, towards the first signs of habitation…
At around 2pm on Saturday 10 June 1944, detachments of German SS soldiers from the 2nd Panzer division ‘Das Reich’ moved into the heart of Oradour. Being a Saturday the town was busy and a good many people from the outlying villages had come in to do some shopping or take advantage of the hairdressers, chemist, doctors and other facilities Oradour offered. Trade was brisk and the atmosphere was convivial. Lunch was coming to a close, the café was clearing the last plates away and serving coffee to those who had chosen to sit on the terrace. The invasion was only days old and there was now real hope the country would soon be liberated. That afternoon in Oradour was being repeated in a thousand little market towns across France. Oradour was not unusual, except that it was situated in a fertile, peaceable and attractive spot. The townspeople were mainly merchants and farmers who enjoyed the comfortable seclusion and self-assurance of their town. The war had never really reached them. They were surprised then, but not initially overly concerned, when reports of German soldiers in the town reached their ears. By three o’clock this had changed.
The whole town was ordered to assemble on the main square, known locally as ‘the fairground’. The order was given by a few senior SS officers and groups of soldiers set off around the town, hauling people out of their homes and urging them to the fairground. A man left the barbers with the shaving foam still on his chin, the butcher, the grocer and the funeral director all were hustled out of their premises and on to the assembly point. The schoolchildren filed out of the school hand in hand, led by their teachers. Anxious mothers pushed prams and clasped their confused infants by the hand. There was no panic, just a gradually mounting anxiety. At this moment the doctor returned from his round, left his vehicle at the fairground and approached the SS officers. He was treated with cold indifference and forced to join his patients. Only a few, the lucky or the wily, managed to evade the SS, those who sensed immediately the danger and escaped into the surrounding fields. But these were a tiny minority. Most people followed the orders, for they suspected some minor irritation had occurred to interfere with their day, but little more. The Germans even scoured the surrounding countryside for victims, people working in nearby fields were driven in by truck, even a couple who had been cycling through Oradour and had stopped briefly for refreshment were hauled off, their bicycles left propped against the wall. By mid-afternoon the whole town and anyone unfortunate enough to have visited it that afternoon were assembled on the fairground, men on one side, women and children on the other. The leading figures of the town politely but firmly asked for an explanation. The chief SS officer declared that arms destined for the Resistance had been reported hidden in Oradour and a search was to be made. He advised the town’s elders to produce the weapons directly. The town elders firmly denied the presence of arms.
The preamble was a calculated ruse by the SS, something they had perfected before exterminating civilians in the East, to put them off guard. Most people at that moment must have thought a search would be carried out, nothing would be found and the troops would continue on their way, leaving nothing but a brief unsavoury memory of their occupiers and houses that required a tidy up.
Following the lane that seemed to trap the blinding sun and intensify it, I saw the first defunct telegraph poles loom up, their concrete trunks barely weathered, as if only recently erected. But the broken threads of their original wires hung from them like sad tresses or coiled up in the air harshly against that blue summer sky, in a kind of permanent spasm, alerting the onlooker to the sudden fracture taking place, the sense of a line being suddenly cut, of rescue no longer possible. I then observed the first ruined facades appear, an ancient petrol pump at the roadside, a blackened stump after the fires, but with its primitive counter still visible, jammed presumably at the point when the last hand replaced a pump never to be lifted again. All around stood the ruined facades and half demolished inner walls of once proud, well-constructed houses. One could make out the layout of front gardens and pathways leading pointlessly to ruined dwellings, roofless carcasses on which the high sun now beat, casting deep black shadows in mouldering corners, where a surly breeze rustled mean clusters of weeds and dead grasses. Rubble was strewn everywhere and masonry, some with pretty tiling still attached, lying where it had fallen sixty-five years ago. I had now reached the town centre proper and the fairground was immediately ahead of me. There I observed the first official plaque with its brief but devastating announcement. ‘Here, on this site, the population were assembled…’
The long vertical open space of the fairground was haunting. A narrow well-kept village green fringed by the more well to do houses, virtually the same now as it was when the doomed populace filled its space. At one end a mature tree, clearly thoughtfully planted and originating from well before the period of the town’s sudden demise, a sole living tree offering a wide pool of shade, which had spread little by little each year since the town died, but with no-one to take advantage of it, save the silent foreign intruders of the intervening decades, who ever more withdrawn with the augmentation of shock, reposed briefly under its indiscreetly lush canopy, intruders such as myself. I noted the indestructible iron rails bordering the green still performing their function between stone bollards, defying rust. The houses here seemed less visibly destroyed than others and therefore more eerie, since one could easily imagine their occupants leaving the house, door unlocked, those who only had to walk a few yards, who saw the rest of the town invading the opulent space they coveted before their comfortable residences. And now these houses are mortuaries containing only the last recorded movements of their occupants, which will never be found. Their once well-tended pathways are overgrown and their once carefully brushed paving dislodged by crude roots and saplings. Their delicate gates of wrought iron are half open, some held fast, rooted in the earth, still inviting passage, but picket fences have been erected since to dissuade entry. Others swing a little in the breeze, the faint sound of their movement once an irritation to the enveloping silence, now absorbed and an indecipherable element of it.
Some of the steps are tiled with intricate patterns of mosaic, and have barely weathered. Their last purpose was to feel the final footfall of he or she who was never to return. And here is the butcher’s shop with his own distinctive tiled step and window ledge. Above the open roof the sky peers in with the most frightful blend of curiosity and indifference. Only here does the residue of the way a butchers shop must have looked then manage to linger on in our time. By some indecent aberration of history a town has been preserved, offering a unique view of ‘how things were’. We note the predominance of wood, iron and enamel, traditional materials that elsewhere have been replaced but here were left as if at a cliff edge, where the ground of the future has given way. They remain cordoned off, trapped between the past when they functioned as themselves and the future of non-being, cheated of the living future that they were owed but never had. They are instead anchored to a continual present for as long as their materials last, yanked out of their convention on the day they were abandoned. They seem to resist any articulate communication, but consistently undermine their own presence. They seem like the weary animals we watch hopefully in zoos, that they eventually come to life, at least for us. But they don’t see us, they see only the glass screen we stand protected behind and before whose boundary they exist at our discretion.
During the round up the SS men had already selected a number of stone barns or sheds judged suitable for their purposes, sited in different areas of the town and to these they now ordered the men in separate groups. The women and children were then corralled and made to proceed to the other side of the town, down the main street where the tram plied, towards the church of Oradour, notable in the area for its architectural beauty. The men were herded at gunpoint into the barns. There they were roughly assembled in ranks, facing the brightly lit yards. At the entrance to each barn the SS had mounted a machine gun. Then came the signal, a small detonation and the executioners in each location opened fire all at once.
These barns used for housing animals, vehicles and produce were now littered with bleeding bodies. Smoke drifted from the overheated guns and the small fires that had been started. In one barn a few men had managed to escape from the hail of fire by hiding beneath the bodies of those already riddled with bullets. These few men managed to crawl to the rear of one of the barns and force a way out through rotting planks. Incredibly they made it to open fields and eventual freedom. Their account of the massacre is the sole witness to the atrocity carried out in the barns. Like the fairground, these barns, the scant remains of them, or at least their location, are identified by a sober plaque: ‘This is a place of suffering. Here a group of men were massacred and burned by the Nazis.’
Certain objects survived the razing of the town. Here and there one comes across an antique sewing machine standing resolutely in the void of a ground floor room, a sturdy old Singer that even now defies the elements. The fat needle is still poised ready to sew, the footplate calls for a foot, the wheel at the side awaits a hand to turn it. Absurdly the Singer hangs on, through the scalding sun, the dusting of snow and the spiteful frosts, it hangs on, showing us the admirable design formed by a human mind, a need met through simple engineering. Its simplistic interrogation to the sky and its wilful permanence against the odds is something of a balm for the existential complexities of this atrocity.
In another ruin a bicycle’s skeleton stands propped against a wall. You recognise the shape of a bicycle, a machine once oiled and gleaming someone rode around the now extinct town, but only its vague shape is left, a shadow. The wall is in sympathy with it and supports it, the bleached weeds seem to surround it, reach towards it as if in a desire to overwhelm it, to hide its shame from the world’s stare, but even they are too given up. On another wall the tangled remains of a racing bike of the period have been nailed up, creating a kind of sculptural display. Here the effect is more visibly charged, there is a sense of collision, of something resolutely fatal in this twisted frame and crazily warped wheels. This carcass even has its chain and pedals, the scooped handlebars. It is recognisable as a racing machine, but for six decades it has moved only to the wall and hung there like a crumpled spider, mocked by the elements.
The rusting shell of a black Peugeot lists, its rubber tyres long perished, next to the fairground. This was the car of the doctor; a respectable man in his mid-thirties who as mentioned earlier had been out on his rounds in the surrounding villages when the Germans struck. His car stands where he left it, welded to the earth beneath, slumped on its rust amber axles, the interior long decayed, leaving only the stubborn ribs of the seats, the hollow facia and the withered steering wheel. Seeing this lone car sat where it was last parked, one cannot help but imagine the alarmed professional man getting out of it and approaching the officers, only to be brushed away and hustled off with everyone else. On his return from a morning of humane work, helping the living truly live, he is to be summarily executed for no reason other than that he resides in a world without the moral or rational parameters he expected. The incongruity of the charred wreck with the seemingly undisturbed peaceable natural scene signals a sudden onrush of metaphysically bored out futility.
Elsewhere in the town is the similarly arresting spectacle of a crowd of closely parked vehicles, possibly a garage yard, replete with rusting hulks. Prolonged observation of these packed skeletons arouses a sense of slowly ebbing rational anchorage and the empowerment of derangement. Their grilles and bonnets are torn off and lie propped up against them, as if some being or force has swept in and defiled them of their former splendour, then had second thoughts and tried to make amends. They appear hopelessly ransacked, plundered of every precious familiarity that made them a once functioning human tool. Only bare metal remains. Yet in some way these ravaged cars nobly stand in, living on somehow for their owners who perished by bullet or flame. Not of flesh and bone, they cling on longer, their destruction being a slow drawn out one, and unaware they evolve by way of their decay into a different object. Even to the end they manage to signal to the one who stares back at them. When the heavens open the empty goblets of their headlamps thoughtfully catch the rain.
As the men of Oradour were being so efficiently massacred in the barns at various locations in the town, the vast crowd of women and children were proceeding along the main street from the fairground towards the southern end of town where the church was situated. One can barely imagine this brief hurried journey as the confusing fusillades of shots rang out from different locations.
At the side of the street, a steep flight of stone steps lead up to the front door of a property. No one ascends them anymore, for at the top there is simply a void. The steps have remained untouched but leading nowhere have become something both less than and more than steps. These steps serve no function since now they lead nowhere, they are only strange doppelgangers, slabs of stone in a certain shape, musing silently on horror. Other steps lead more confidently to front doors long since rotted, they remain desperately attached to wind dried facades, whose upper stories are crenulated with jagged blackened beams, mortar and exposed brick. Standing at one end of the main street with its gentle slope of half gnawed away tarmac and tram lines shimmering in the heat, you sense the terrifying randomness of the suffering inflicted here.
In spite of its entire populace being exterminated, its infrastructure torn to shreds and its buildings burned to the ground, the town has refused to die. By being designated a memorial it has been given the chance to live on beyond its apparent death in June 1944. Oradour has a unique position in history, not so much frozen in time as trapped between the moment of its destruction and the moment when the visitor beholds it. Here is a relic of something that once lived, but due to the intensity of the death which clings to it, manages to live permanently in a different guise, as a warning, as a lesson, as a witness. As the chosen one, Oradour stands in for every village, town, city and community annihilated by war.
I have arrived at what for most is the culmination of their tour. Just before the church on the dusty little square, a single mature tree stands like a dark sentinel, guardian of the mausoleum. Its perfectly straight trunk etches a black bar on the blue sky, the crown, thick and leafy casts an enticing shadow all around. This must have been a slender young tree when the crowd of women and children of Oradour passed around it and through its then modest speckled shade. It was the last living element of nature they ever saw, and in their terror they would not have noticed it.
One can presume that the SS plan to drive the women and children into the church was another method pioneered in the Russian campaign. Once they were inside the Germans entered (according to the sole surviving witness) and set down a boxlike contraption with wires issuing from it. They then hastily left the church and secured the doors and windows. But one woman escaped. In a spasm of self-preservation she somehow scaled the wall above the altar and slipped down through the broken window onto the ground outside. Miraculously unseen, wounded by her struggle through wire and glass, she crawled away like a wounded animal that had freed itself from a steel trap and hid in a nearby garden amongst rows of fruit canes until the Germans departed.
Passing through the shade of the sentinel tree, I approached the church. The rest of the ruined town lay behind me. I know what happened here, in the ancient nave. What exactly am I doing here? And what are these other people who appear to be from my time, dressed in their casual holiday clothes and speaking various European languages, what are they doing here? We are all moving towards the church and have been since we entered the perimeter of the ruined town. We are all drawn inexorably, as if by some ghoulish seductive force towards the church, some even holding guidebooks or maps to remind us of what happened here. It is an impressive looking building from the outside, prized by its pious worshippers, a worthy spiritual hub of the town, destination for weddings, baptisms and funerals, joyous occasions and solemn ones as life demands, but a place of community where people come together in a common humanity.
But for the SS it was simply a convenient large space in which to exterminate a significant group of people. The explosive device started numerous small fires, which rapidly grew to an unstoppable blaze. As the SS men stood outside they must have felt a sense of achievement. For no one was left except them and their belief was the right one.
Inside the church, it felt cool and spacious, a relief from the heat. A surprisingly stiff breeze entered through the ruined window behind the altar, where only struts of the frame persisted, and a portion of chicken wire caught up there somehow. Below the suitably bare altar, to one side in the aisle, a partially charred confessional box was left, but half eaten, gnawed away on one side by fire. Here those unfortunates who arrived first after the Germans left found the partially burned bodies of two children, still hand in hand. Nothing else had survived the inferno except the buckled but still recognisable frame of a pushchair, wheels still intact, now placed centre stage on uneven stone flags. The sight of that pathetic calcified frame in the wide expanse of the cold floor noticeably caused those moving around inside to steer a wide berth around it.
What the would-be rescuers found when they entered the still smouldering scalding oven of the church was an immense pyramid of ash at its centre, hundreds of people reduced by intense heat to a gritty dust containing charred bone fragments, or a portion of a skull. The SS had created of the church a giant improvised crematorium, leaving virtually no trace of their countless victims. There wasn’t time, however, to go to the lengths taken at Lidice outside Prague, where all trace of habitation was systematically bulldozed and the land ploughed over and sewn with crops. These SS troopers were required at the new battlefield of Normandy and were unable to properly finish the job. As at Auschwitz in January 1945, they bungled their destruction, leaving just enough for the future to reconstruct as evidence against them. They left the physical ruin of Oradour, not the ploughed fields of Lidice. They left the blown up remains of gas chambers at Birkenau, not the innocuous grassy meadow of Treblinka.
In the church I stood beleaguered with a few other people, also muted, since we imagined any word uttered here would immediately collapse. What is most frightful is that it does not, but states its function as everywhere else, as if language can always carry on whatever the circumstances, because it has the measure of man and knows our weaknesses. It seemed as if we few who had crept into this morbidly baited space, had been trapped in a dark silo. The only light flooding in high above where the roof once was failed to make any impression, lowering down a greyish shawl, as if once entering the space it was transformed and bleached of life. Then the sun, brazenly, inappropriately, as if furious with this sepulchre that had no use for it, forced a way in through the half open door behind us. I felt my living presence, the whole movement of my flesh, bone and muscle, also an intolerable intrusion. In that cool stone space, so familiar from the numberless ancient churches I have visited, I far too lightly bore the most tremendous weight, a sense of the complete finite absurdity of the present moment. It seemed both a personal necessity to enter this church, where a level of suffering no single person can identify or imagine had occurred, but alongside this it felt an act of historic voyeurism, a malignant inclination to check the hallmark of an overwhelming experience. But unlike those who had undergone the ultimate suffering without warning, and whose death agony and its aftermath achieved nothing whatsoever, confirmed nothing whatsoever, but merely were left with a stage set for its eternal reproduction, I was permitted to walk out of that ecclesiastical charnel house into the waiting manacles of the sunshine and though desperate to be freed from the powerful undertow of extinction, gave myself up willingly.