Sunday, February 20, 2011


Every European country we’ve visited so far has its own WWII story to tell and France is no exception. In Normandy, we saw the D-Day beaches and read about the Allies liberating France. In the south however, the game was a bit different. This appears to be the heart of the Résistance. The south was run by the Vichy government, a Nazi puppet regime, while the north was controlled directly by the Nazi’s. The Vichy government was led by Petanque (not sure of the spelling), the General of the French Army who decided France’s best chance for survival was to side with Hitler. All over the Dordogne Valley are plaques and memorials to the fallen Résistance fighters. Plaques commemorate sites of skirmishes between the Nazi’s and Résistance, and unless the Dordogne was a hot seat of unrest, there are more than one would expect.

As the Allies drove further into France that fateful summer, the Germans did not go peacefully. The Germans realized the Résistance fighters in France created a particularly difficult problem as they could be anyone, anywhere and strike from within what the Germans considered their home turf. This is the problem when you take over a country by force. After D-Day, the Germans began a campaign of terror in order to prove their superior power and prevent French citizens from getting any ideas about joining the Résistance.

Ordour-sur-Glane was a small village about two hours north of Sarlat. It had about 300 inhabitants during WWII and was unremarkable in most ways. The Germans chose this town to use as an example of how they could annihilate anyone at anytime. The actually had a written document on how to carry out a mass murder. On their chosen date of execution, the population in the town had doubled. It was handout day for cigarette rations and vaccination clinics were being held.

German troops surrounded the town, forming a net and then walking in, sweeping outlying homes and fields, then emptying local schools and businesses to ensure everyone was gathered in the town centre. They then separated the women and children from the men, sending them to the village church and locking them in. They broke the men into small groups and spread them out around the town. On a command, the soldiers around town simultaneously opened fired, executing all the men. Then they built pyres over the bodies and set them on fire.

The soldiers lobbed tear gas and grenades into the church, then opened the doors and shot into the chaos of 400 screaming women and children. They set explosives to the roof of the church to try to cave it in and set fire to the building. They then raced through the town looting and taking whatever valuables they could carry before setting each of the town buildings on fire. They sat guard watching the town burn all night. In the morning, they dragged whatever human remains still existed to a mass burial site.

Of the 200 or so men, six escaped a burning barn but only five survived. Of the more than 400 women and children executed in the church, only one woman managed to escape. One boy also escaped because he ran when the Germans came into his school. He somehow made it out of the village.

During the Nuremburg trials after the war, very few of the soldiers involved were brought to justice. Of those tried, 14 were French citizens who had been pressed into German service as times got tough for the Germans. The 14 Frenchmen were not convicted. The French president used this town as an example of the atrocity of the war crimes the Germans committed against the French. The town was left exactly as it stood June 10, 1944. Today visitors can walk through the quiet streets and see the rusted remains of the fire that ended this town more than 65 years ago. A plaque at the village entrance states simply, “Remember”.

Walking the streets was eerie and sad. Many building fronts still stand though the interiors are rubble overgrown with plant life. Many buildings have signs to show what kind of business was there and who owned it. Signs of human daily life still sit inside; the sewing machine in the wool shop, the pot still on a stone shelf, the husks of cars behind the mechanic shop wall. The telephone poles sag and tilt and here and there a bouquet of fresh flowers reminds you that there are still people now who knew the people lost that day.

The church is roofless and the sunlight spills in, casting beauty in a place of horror. The altar still carries the pock marks of the bullets but more chilling still are the burned remains of a pram nearby. It is hard to prevent the disturbing images and feelings of disgust that shiver over you on seeing it. Even the large groups of teenagers clutching their notebooks and pens walk softly and murmur quietly. This town is in the school curriculum. The French motto surrounding this war is “Forgive but not forget”. It is difficult to imagine how the people here have been able to embrace this motto.


Steve said...

Remember indeed. There is a growing disconnect of what the world wars represented and what they fought for, especially in North America where we were isolated from the confrontation. Those who lived in the midst of all of this have stories beyond what we can even imagine. Seeing these towns first hand, must really be a mix of sadness, but pride, for all that was changed with the outcome of the war. said...

Thanks Holly...I know we chatted about this but reading and seeing some of the pictures is heart breaking...soul searching...I would love to talk to Rhys and Julia and how this affects them, their thinking, their philosophy of life...and you and Tom, too. You are experiencing first hand many things that those of us in North America can only try to understand. Love Mom