On June 10, 1944, just a few days after the Allied invasion at Normandy, 200 German S.S. troops surrounded a little French village, Oradour-sur-Glane. By nightfall, all but 3 escapees and a half a dozen others had been massacred. 642 men, women, and children dead.
Some say the Germans mistook this village for another with a similar name, another Oradour whose Resistance fighters, the machi, had abducted a SS officer earlier in the week. At the official memorial site, interpreters believe the attack was likely ordered as part of Himmler’s ongoing campaign of terror. Whatever the precise reason for the massacre, the killings were brutal, cruel, and completely unjustified.
Jill and I silently drifted from ruin to ruin in the half razed village, preserved as a memorial. As I wandered by the school, the church, and what remained of the little shops in the center of the village, I imagined the scene just hours before the soldiers arrived. Cafés were selling coffee. Coiffeurs were cutting hair. Men and women were working in the fields or selling their products in town. The children were running up and down the street, some helping their parents, others just enjoying summer vacation.
By evening, nearly all these precious lives were reduced to smoldering, bullet ridden corpses.
Some 400 women and children were herded to the church. Into the packed sanctuary, soldiers threw grenades before shooting those who weren’t immediately killed. One man who went to the village shortly after the massacre found three boys, ages 10-12, huddled together near the altar, where they had desperately clung to life and to each other, before succumbing to death. Before turning away from the horror he could no longer stomach, he noticed an infant still in its baby carriage, shot dead.
In the sanctuary, my eyes fell upon the now-rusted-out, crushed carriage still standing there, testifying to the extent of the callous brutality. I felt sick.
The men were divided into groups and taken to various barns where there were few entrances or exits, thus minimizing their chance of escape. Machine guns were set up to mow them down. Dead or alive, everyone in the village was eventually doused with gasoline and set afire. Fewer than 10% of the bodies were identifiable after the German soldiers had finished executing their orders.
I thought it odd that I felt almost nothing for almost two hours, until I realized that I simply couldn’t believe what I was reading and seeing. I was in shock, and couldn’t take in the horror of it all.
It’s not as if I didn’t already know about the millions who had died in concentration camps and gas chambers, the pogroms conducted over the centuries, and the even more horrific genocides in Rwanda, Armenia, Bosnia, Cambodia and elsewhere. Maybe it was the senseless, cold-blooded brutality against innocent villagers that so disturbed me. Maybe it was the realization that the killers looked just like me, and their victims just like the people in my own family. Or, maybe it was a growing sense of terror that what happened in this little village less than a century ago could happen again, anywhere, at any time, given the right conditions. And probably would again and again and again.
When I got to the cemetery, I found numerous memorials. The most disturbing were those displaying four, six, eight or more photographs of members of the same family. Organized in descending order by age, I saw the once smiling faces of eighty- year-old grandparents alongside their sons, daughters, in-laws, and grandchildren. One little boy was only thirteen days old when he had been slaughtered along with with seven other family members.
The tears finally began falling when I read the inscriptions on the memorial stones. Many spoke of loved ones whose lives were senselessly cut short by the “barbarian Germans.” The one pictured above reads: “To the memory of our dear little girls and sisters, charmed with our affection…students of the school at Oradour-sur-Glane, massacred and burned in the church by the Nazi hordes….”
What were the soldiers thinking? What were they feeling? “Just following orders” doesn’t begin to explain the depth of the degenerative forces at work that produced this evil.
My tears soon gave away to rage, and I fantasized wreaking revenge on the perpetrators, and anyone else like them. And then it struck me.
We may shake our heads at such mind-boggling atrocities, and we may even weep for the victims, but when are we going to face the ugly truth that any of us is capable of treating others cruelly and even violently? When are going to come to grips with how we are already inflicting pain, and sometimes quite serious damage, on others who have hurt us or who are simply in our way? When are we going to fall on our knees, begging God not just for forgiveness, but earnestly pleading for the ability to forgive others from our hearts and to work for healing and reconciliation?
Genocide will happen again, but what are you and I going to do differently today?
A Prayer “Loving God, save us from ourselves. Please break our hearts over our own hatred, desires for revenge, violent words and actions. Forgive us our sins, as we forgive those who have sinned against us. Lead us not into temptation to strike out against others, but deliver us from the evil within us as well as the evil all around us. Lead us to your well of grace and love that we may drink from it. Cleanse us by your living water…and compel us to offer that same gift to others.”