When our group decided to do a series on ghost towns, I was all for it. Being American, the ghost towns I am acquainted with are mostly relics of mining boomtowns. They’re all over the country…despite popular expectations, comparatively few of these ghost towns are actually from the gold rush era. Many of these ghost towns were built around coal mines, or phosphate mines, etc…and quite a few of the towns were formed as farming villages that just didn’t pan out. When we were presented with the list of suggested towns about which to write our international ghost town blogs, I naturally “dibbed” Oradour-sur-Glane in France, as my mother was born in France. I thought the town would have as an innocuous an origin as the ghost towns in America.
I was floored when I learned the truth. Oradour-sur-Glane was a typical small town in the Limousin region of France prior to World War II. During WWII, as we know, France was occupied by the Germans.
(On a side note, my father…an American soldier during WWII, was captured by the Germans in France during the Ba
ttle of the Bulge. He spent the rest of the war in a Prisoner of War Camp. My mother had immigrated to the United States in the 30’s, when she was just a child, so she wasn’t in France during the war.)
There are only theories on why on June 10, 1944, Sturmbannführer Adolf Diekmann, the 2nd Waffen SS Panzer Division Das Reich, 1st Battalion’s commander decided to order his troops to go house to house through the little village, corralling all occupants, whether they be men, women or children, into the town square. Once they were all assembled for an “identity check”, the women and children were separated from the men and led to the town church. Anyone who protested was shot. Once inside the church, the children and the women were asphyxiated with smoke bombs. Anyone who took too long to die was helped along by a bullet. The men were taken in groups into various buildings and shot. The Germans were brutally careful that no one received less than a fatal bullet.
The buildings, with their 642 murdered occupants, were then burned.
After the liberation of France, General Charles de Gaulle, leader of the Free French Forces during the war (and later President of France), saw the desecrated little town and heard its story from the handful of survivors who had managed to flee the town during the round-up. Right then he declared that the town should remain exactly as it was, as a reminder of the barbarity of war.
Today a tour of the town is one of the requisite field trips for many French schools. Signs provide details of what happened in certain places…like the plaque near an oven in a bakery which states simply: “Here were found two burnt corpses.” One of them was an infant.
This isn’t the story I thought I would be researching when I signed up to write about Oradour-sur-Glane, but I’m glad I heard its history. I have plans to visit my mother’s native land and now I feel that I should make a point to visit this little “ghost town”. Seeing the realities of World War II, frozen in time, will hopefully bring home a small sense of what my father experienced during his time fighting against the Germans in the war. And it will help me understand the French saga of occupation that my mother’s country endured during that time.
Perhaps if more people visited this town and similar sites…there would be less war today. Or perhaps that’s just idealistic, wishful thinking on my part.